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Wendy Willard v. the Pennsylvania Society For the Prevention of Cruelty To Animals

April 23, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yohn, J.


Plaintiff, Wendy Willard, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendants, the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the "PSPCA") and two of its employees, George Bengal and Tara Loller, alleging violations of her civil rights in connection with their search of her property and confiscation of a dozen dogs. Currently before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss Willard's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, I will grant the defendants' motion.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History*fn1

Willard is the owner of a nationally recognized pack of basset hounds. (Compl. ¶ 13.)

During 2009, Willard's pack consisted of twenty-three dogs, two of which resided with Willard in her residence. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14, 16.) The other twenty-one dogs lived in a heated barn on Willard's two-acre property approximately 200 feet from her residence. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 16.) Willard's property borders, in part, a 340-acre wooded property owned by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education ("SCEE"). (Id. ¶ 14.)

The PSPCA is a non-profit corporation that is empowered to enforce Pennsylvania laws pertaining to cruelty to animals through its humane-society police officers.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 8.) On July 21, 2009, Loller, a humane-society police officer, visited Willard's residence but, finding the residence empty, left her business card on Willard's door. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 18.) Loller returned again on July 27, 2009, this time accompanied by PSPCA officers Bengal and Leonard Knox, and Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement ("BDLE") dog wardens Joe Laughlin and Kristin Donmoyer.*fn3 (Id. ¶ 19.) Bengal remained at the top of the private lane leading to Willard's residence, approximately 1/4 mile away, while Loller, Knox, Laughlin, and Donmoyer requested permission to search the barn. (Id.) Willard refused to allow her barn to be searched and the officers and wardens left her property. (Id. ¶ 20.)

According to Willard, the officers and wardens proceeded to trespass on SCEE property, the property of another adjoining landowner, and her property in order to observe the fenced-in exercise area behind Willard's barn. (Id. ¶¶ 23-27.) From their trespassing vantage point, the officers and wardens observed Willard cleaning this outdoor exercise area. (Id. ¶ 27.)

The officers and wardens left to obtain search warrants. (Id. ¶ 29.) PSPCA officers may obtain a search warrant based upon probable cause. (Id. ¶ 30.) The PSPCA officers procured a warrant based on allegations that they had observed Willard cleaning feces from the exercise area behind her barn and that Willard was not permitting them to investigate her. (Id. ¶ 29.) Unlike PSPCA officers, "dog wardens may apply for administrative warrants based on allegations about the number of dogs." (Id. ¶ 30.) The dog wardens also obtained a search warrant. (Id. ¶ 29.)

Around 5:00 p.m. on July 27, 2009, PSPCA officers Loller and Knox, dog wardens, and City of Philadelphia police officers returned to execute the two warrants and search Willard's property. (Id. ¶ 31.) Bengal joined the search sometime later that evening. (Id. at 8 n.6.) Dog warden Donmoyer remained with Willard in her residence while the others searched and photographed the barn. (Id. ¶ 35.) Upon returning from the barn, Loller accused Willard of not complying with Philadelphia's "limit law," which prohibits keeping more than twelve dogs in a residential dwelling, and stated that the PSPCA would have to seize the dogs to bring Willard into compliance. (Id. ¶ 36.) Willard chose eleven of her dogs to turn over to the PSPCA and signed surrender agreements for each. (Id. ¶¶ 42, 48, 50, 53.)

Willard maintains that she was coerced into signing the surrender agreements by (1) false threats to take all twenty-three of her dogs if she did not sign the agreements; (2) statements that one of the dog wardens was going into diabetic shock and needed medical attention; (3) threats to issue her so many citations that the PSPCA would "own her home"; and (4) the refusal of Bengal and Loller to leave her kitchen without signed surrender agreements. (Id. ¶ 42.) Willard, who was tearful and distraught, allegedly did not have time to read the agreements before surrendering her dogs. (Id. ¶ 53.)

Since July 27, 2009, ten of the dogs Ms. Willard surrendered have been sterilized and sold or placed for adoption by the PSPCA. (Id. ¶ 59.) The eleventh dog was euthanized by the PSPCA following a botched surgical procedure. (Id. ¶ 60.)

On August 10, 2009, the PSPCA served Willard with twelve citations for depriving her dogs of veterinary care, ten citations for depriving her dogs of access to clean and sanitary shelter, and two code-violation notices for violating the "Animal Sounds" law. (Id. ¶¶ 62, 68.) The code violations were dismissed at a hearing on November 17, 2009, and Willard has not been convicted of any of the twenty-two other citations. (Id. ¶¶ 66, 69.) Between May 20, 2010, and August 13, 2010, Willard received at least forty-three notices to make an appointment for inspection from the PSPCA, even though she has never been adjudicated to be in violation of any ordinance. (Id. ¶ 70.)

As a result of these events, Willard filed a complaint against the defendants on July 18, 2011, alleging violations of her civil rights. In count I, Willard requests a declaratory judgment that the defendants violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by unconstitutionally searching and seizing her property and by depriving her of property without due process of law.*fn4 Willard brings counts II, III, and V against all defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unconstitutional search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment, denial of procedural due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and denial of substantive due process in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, respectively. Count IV is asserted against the PSPCA and Bengal under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for inadequate training and supervision of humane-society police officers.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss all five counts of the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under ...

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