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Johnson-Schmitt v. Robinson

United States District Court, Second Circuit

December 26, 2013

GLORIA JOHNSON-SCHMITT, CARA YOUNGS, and CAMERON YOUNGS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN A. ROBINSON, individually and as Dog Control Officer of Town of Concord; ERIE COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT; COUNTY OF ERIE, NEW YORK; JOHN DOE NO. 1; JOHN DOE NO. 2; THE SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS, serving Erie County; LINDSEY M. STYBORSKI, individually and as Peace Officer of SPCA. Defendants.

DECISION AND ORDER

WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs commenced the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking compensatory and injunctive relief for Defendants' alleged violations of their constitutional rights. The allegations in the complaint stem from Defendants' alleged searches of Plaintiffs' property and seizure of animals purportedly belonging to Plaintiffs. Presently before this Court are the motions for summary judgment of Defendants County of Erie, Erie County Sheriff's Department, and John Does 1 and 2; Defendants Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("SPCA") and Lindsey M. Styborski; and Defendant Carolyn A. Robinson. The Court finds the motions fully briefed and oral argument unnecessary.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs live in the Town of Concord, where Defendant Carolyn A. Robinson has been employed as a Dog Control Officer since 2002. (Robinson Stmt ¶¶ 1-4; Affidavit of Carolyn A. Robinson ¶ 3, Docket No. 25.) Robinson became familiar with Plaintiff Johnson-Schmitt[1] because of her admitted frequent failure to timely renew required dog licenses. (Robinson Stmt ¶¶ 22-23; Dep. of Plaintiff Gloria Johnson-Schmitt at 48, Ex F to Aff. of Jenna W. Klucsik, Esq.) Plaintiff Johnson-Schmitt alleges that Robinson had a "strong personal dislike" for her and has allied herself with Plaintiff's estranged sister. (Compl. ¶¶ 31, 136-137.)

Plaintiffs assert that in July 2009, Robinson impermissibly entered her home without a warrant. (Compl. ¶¶ 175-178.) As described by Plaintiff, she and her son Chad were in the backyard when she heard something come up the driveway. (Pl's Dep at 63.) They then "went into the house and [Robinson] was walking back out." (Id.) The parties agree that there is a "breezeway" which connects the outside to the kitchen "after you go through the laundry room." ( Id. at 66-67; Robinson Stmt. ¶¶ 30-34.) Plaintiff saw Robinson coming out of the door "[b]etween the laundry room and the breezeway." ( Id. at 68.) When asked at her deposition whether she knew if Robinson had gone into the kitchen, Plaintiff answered "[o]nly by the wet footprints that w[ere] on the floor." (Id.) She explained that the other household members were "off to camp" or at summer school. (Id.) When asked whether she knew for certain that those were Robinson's footprints, Plaintiff answered, "[a]bsolutely not." ( Id. at 69.)

Robinson, in contrast, avers that she has "absolutely no memory of going to [Plaintiff's] house in July 2009, including the breezeway and kitchen." (Robinson Aff. ¶ 19.) Further, because the licenses for Plaintiff's dogs did not expire until August, there was no reason for Robinsion to have been there in July. ( Id. ¶¶ 20-24.)

On December 2, 2009, Robinson met officers from the Erie County Sheriff's Department at the property of Jamie Dispenza. (Robinson Stmt. ¶¶ 60-65; Robinson Aff. ¶¶ 34-37.) Approximately 19 dogs were on the premises at that time, at least ten of which were puppies and none of which were licensed. (Robinson Stmt. ¶¶ 67, 73; Pls' CounterStmt ¶ 73.) Robinson observed that the conditions of the property were "horrible and unsanitary, with urine and feces throughout the house, and garbage on the floor." (Robinson Aff. ¶ 37; Robinson Stmt. ¶ 65.) None of the dogs had any tags or identification that would allow an owner to be identified. (Robinson Stmt. ¶¶ 81-82.) Plaintiff, however, alleges that five or six of those dogs, only one of which was an adult, in fact belonged to her. (Pl's Dep at 94-97.)

Robinson, aware that it was winter and the electricity at the property was about to be shut off, seized the dogs, taking three to a shelter on her own property and transferring the remainder to the SPCA. (Robinson Stmt. ¶¶ 70-72; Robinson Aff. ¶ 35.) No SPCA representative was present at the property at the time of the seizure. (SPCA Stmt. ¶ 8; Aff. of Beth Shapiro ¶ 4, Docket No. 24-4.) Jamie Dispenza redeemed only one dog from Robinson, a lab mix named Maggie. (Robinson Stmt. ¶ 76.) The remaining two dogs that Robinson had sheltered were transferred to the SPCA, following which all of the unredeemed dogs seized on December 2, 2009 were adopted out by the SPCA. (Robinson Stmt. ¶ 78; Robinson Aff. ¶¶ 45-47.)

On January 11, 2010, Robinson obtained an "Order to Seize Dogs" signed by Town Justice Leslie Gibbon. (Robinson Stmt. ¶ 97; SPCA Stmt. ¶ 16; Erie County Defs' Stmt. ¶ 7.) The Order indicated that a complaint had been made against Plaintiff with respect to the harboring of unlicensed dogs. (Ex. G to Robinson Aff.) On January 13, 2010, Robinson, Erie County Sheriff's Office deputies, and SPCA employees - including Defendant Lindsey Styborski - arrived at Plaintiff's property. (Robinson Stmt. ¶ 100; SPCA Stmt. ¶ 17; Erie County Defs' Stmt. ¶¶ 5-9.) Plaintiff Johnson-Schmitt was not home when the officials initially arrived, but was informed of their presence by her son William. (Pl's Dep at 117-18; Robinson Stmt. ¶103; Erie County Defs' Stmt. ¶¶ 5-7.) While on the phone with William, Plaintiff heard him order the officials to get out. (Pl's Dep at 118-19.)

Robinson averred that when she arrived at the property with the others, they knocked on an exterior door and received no response. (Robinson Aff. ¶ 55.) She further asserts that, as they were standing in the yard, "one of the deputies thought he heard a child. At that time, the deputies and people from the SPCA went into the house." ( Id. at 56.) "A young man arrived and told the deputies and the people from the SPCA to get out of the house, which they did." ( Id. at 57.)

Plaintiff asserts that, when she arrived at the property, she "let the sheriff in because he said he had to come in, and I let the SPCA in." (Pl's Dep. 126.) She further testified that a sheriff's deputy told her:

I had to stand there and cooperate or else they was going to arrest me. The kids would come home to no mom. The police told me I had to be quiet and cooperate or else the kids were going to come home, and there wouldn't be a mother there, so they'd put me in jail.

(Id. at 127, 129; see Cara Youngs' Dep at 10-11, Ex G to Klucsik Aff.)

SPCA Officer Styborski asserted that she did not enter the premises until requested by the Erie County Sheriff's deputies "and at the invite of Plaintiff Gloria Johnson." (Aff. of Lindsey M. Styborski ¶ 14, Docket No. 24-3.) Once inside, she "observed [a] large amount of feces and debris throughout the premises and numerous dogs suffering eye and ear infections." ( Id. ¶ 14.) Styborski also observed "an extremely emaciated horse, several dogs, and deplorable conditions" outside the house. (Styborski Aff. ¶ 13.)

In contrast, Plaintiff described the inside of the house as having:

pee pads over against the wall where the dogs went to the bathroom that I hadn't changed that morning because I was getting everybody off to school late. Smokey[, Plaintiff Cameron Youngs' dog], had broke his chain, so we had put him in a kennel temporarily until Cameron could get back and put him back on a chain, fix the chain, because we were in a hurry because the kids missed the bus. And dishes on the table from the kids eating breakfast. Other than that, fine.

(Pl's Dep at 127-28, 133; see Dep of Cameron Youngs at 9, Ex H to Klucsik Aff.) When asked at her deposition, Plaintiff could not describe the conditions in the outdoor area where the dogs ran because she had not "been back there in months." (Pl's Dep at 133.)

SPCA Officer Styborski avers that she confirmed with Plaintiff that "she did not have licenses or ownership records for the numerous dogs harbored at the premises." (Styborski Aff. ¶ 15; see Pl's Dep at 122-123 (at least 3 dogs were unlicensed at that time).) Plaintiff stated during her deposition that she tried to show the dogs' shot records, which she had for all but four of them, but was told that the records were not "legitimate." (Pl's Dep at 131-32, 134.) When asked "Did you or do you have any documents at all that would indicate that those dogs belonged to you or did belong to you, " Plaintiff answered, "No." (Pl's Dep at 123.)

Fifteen dogs and one horse were seized that day and transferred to an SPCA facility. (Styborski Aff. ¶ 15; SPCA Stmt. ¶ 20.) Robinson asserts that, despite having the authority to do so, she did not in fact seize any of the animals that day, but simply "lent the SPCA some of the crates [she] had in [her] vehicle." (Robinson Aff. ¶¶ 59-64.) Plaintiff Cara Youngs testified at her deposition, however, that Robinson came back later that day with a police officer and took her dog Sasha away. (Cara Youngs' Dep at 12, 25; see id. at 12 (2 of the dogs seized belonged to Cara).) The three Plaintiffs were subsequently charged with animal cruelty pursuant to Agriculture and Market Law § 353, specifically "overdriving, torturing and injuring animals." (Styborski Aff. ¶ 16, Ex. C; Robinson Stmt. ¶ 117.)

Robinson and the SPCA Defendants assert that, other than an attempt to belatedly license Ms. Youngs' dogs, none of the Plaintiffs attempted to redeem any of the dogs seized on January 13, 2010. (SPCA Stmt. ¶ 23; Robinson Stmt. ¶ 116.) Plaintiff testified that she went to the town clerk with Plaintiff Cara Youngs "to try to license her Yorkies." (Pl's Dep at 141-42.) The town clerk stated that a call was necessary to make sure the clerk could "get the dog[s] back before you license them." ( Id. at 142.) Plaintiff testified that "we called from the town clerk's office, and they said that it was still under investigation, so we didn't license them." (Id.) Plaintiff further testified that she called the SPCA "[p]robably about three or four days afterwards, " spoke to "[w]hoever answered the phone, " and was told the dogs were "still being investigated and processed." (Id.) Plaintiff did not call again because her attorney told her "don't bother." ( Id. at 142-43.) When she was asked, Plaintiff Cara Youngs stated that she "didn't know how" to try and get her two dogs back. (Cara Youngs Dep at 28-29.) Plaintiff Cameron Youngs answered that he took no steps to get his dog back, and when asked why, stated "I don't know." (Cameron Youngs Dep at 16.)

On July 12, 2010, all three Plaintiffs appeared in Town Court for the Town of Concord. (See Court Transcript, Ex I to Klucsik Aff., Ex E to Styborski Aff.) The prosecutor indicated that "after protracted negotiations, the defendants [Plaintiffs in the current case] have agreed to accept an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal conditioned on the signing over of the five licensed dogs that were listed to Ms. Johnson and her children and signing over the horse at issue as well and [ sic ] the licensed dogs." ( Id. at 3.) Plaintiffs' counsel for that proceeding, in response to the court's inquiry as to how many animals were at issue, stated that he believed "there's 15 dogs and one horse. The reason - the dogs were at issue. There was no proof of ownership provided and there's the five day statutory period for the SPCA to dispose of [them] to homes." ( Id. at 4.) Counsel further clarified for the court that proof of ownership had not been provided for ten of the dogs seized, therefore after a statutory five day waiting period, they became "property of the SPCA. All of those dogs were adopted." ( Id. at 9-10.)

With respect to the seizure of the unlicensed dogs, Plaintiffs' counsel stated that it appeared any authority was "kind of consensual" in that if an owner refused to turn over a dog to an animal control officer with a seizure order, the officer would "have to go back to court and ask for a warrant." ( Id. at 13.) Counsel agreed with the court, however, that the issue was not relevant at that time. ( Id. at 14.) After confirming that any seized animals not already adopted from the SPCA would be surrendered and that Plaintiffs would obtain no new animals for the duration of the adjournment, the court consented to the agreed disposition. ( Id. at 15-18.) Notably, there is nothing in the present record that would indicate Plaintiffs failed to comply with the conditions of the six-month ACD or that the charges were ultimately dismissed. (See Compl. ¶¶ 102-103, 112-113, 123-124 (alleging upon information and belief that all charges were dismissed with prejudice).)

Finally, on July 15, 2010, as the result of an alleged "ticket-writing campaign" against her, Plaintiff Johnson-Schmitt was arrested following her non-appearance at an adjourned court date associated with one of these traffic tickets. (Compl. ¶¶ 138-149.) Plaintiff was held in the Erie County Holding Center for approximately five to six hours. (Compl. ¶¶155, 158-170; Pl's Dep at 170-71.) It is alleged in the Complaint that the arresting officer detained Plaintiff to allow Defendant Robinson time to "enter onto [Plaintiff's] premises ...


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