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Debra Moser and Christie Moser v. the Pennsylvania Society For the Prevention of Cruelty To

October 17, 2012

DEBRA MOSER AND CHRISTIE MOSER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE PENNSYLVANIA SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS ET AL, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

October ___, 2012

Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (Docs. 13 &16) and Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition thereto (Doc. 15). Upon consideration of the parties' motions with briefs and exhibits, and for the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion will be granted

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND *fn1

Plaintiffs Debra Moser and Christie Moser bring this action against defendants the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("PSPCA") and three of its employees, Ashley Mutch ("Mutch"), Kristen Sullivan ("Sullivan"), and Wayne Smith ("Smith"), in their official and individual capacities, for alleged civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and 18 Pa.C.S. § 5511(l). Plaintiffs contend that the defendants violated § 1983 by unconstitutionally searching their rented farm; seizing their property; failing to properly train Mutch, Sullivan, and Smith; and denying them their procedural due process rights under Pennsylvania law. Plaintiffs also assert that the defendants committed the tort of conversion by depriving them of their property, and that they are entitled to a declaratory judgment that defendants unconstitutionally searched and seized their property.

Plaintiffs, a mother and daughter, own and rehabilitate animals on a rented, 18 acre farm in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. The PSPCA, a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation, is empowered to enforce Pennsylvania laws pertaining to prevention of cruelty to animals through its humane society police officers. *fn2 Mutch, Sullivan, and Smith are employed by the PSPCA as such officers.

The property in question consists of barns, outbuildings, and pastures. The Mosers rented part of the property pursuant to an oral lease with the property's owner. Neither Debra Moser nor Christie Moser lives at the rented property; rather, Debra Moser lives in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania and Christie Moser lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Mosers shared the rented farm with April Lambert and Darren Honeywell, individuals renting a farmhouse and barn located at the entrance of the property. Lambert and Honeywell had separate rental agreements with the property owner. Debra Moser suffers from a history of depression and fibromyalgia, and has been on Social Security Disability as a result for the last eight to ten years. While her fibromyalgia causes her daily pain, Debra Moser nonetheless cared for the animals herself.

According to Debra Moser, she cared for her animals twice a day. (Debra Moser Dep. at 16). Christie Moser's involvement was mostly in the form of financial support given to her mother. Debra Moser, with financial assistance from Christie Moser, purchased most of her horses from Michael Frantz. *fn3 The majority of the horses were aged and unhealthy at the time they were purchased. The Mosers bought these horses from Frantz in order to save them from going to slaughter. Two horses in particular, a white mare and a brown mare, are the subjects of this litigation.

On November 11, 2008, Debra Moser's acquaintance, Shana McGovern, made a complaint to the Lehigh Township Police Department regarding the inadequate care she believed Debra Moser's animals were receiving. McGovern reported that "Debra's intentions are good, however [Debra] is unable to care for the horses and other animals on the farm due to time and financial constraints." (Doc. 17, Ex. E: Lehigh Township Police Department report). In response, Officers Mutch and Sullivan visited the property on November 14, 2008. When the officers did not find anyone at the property, Mutch left her business card and a written request that someone contact her. On December 12, 2008, Mutch made a follow-up visit to the property and again found no one there. Mutch again left her business card. *fn4

The events in question transpired on December 17-18, 2008. Mutch and Sullivan again attempted to contact Debra Moser at the farm on December 17, 2008. At this time, Mutch and Sullivan met Lambert. *fn5 Lambert asked Mutch and Sullivan whether she could voluntarily surrender two of her own horses, whom she could no longer afford to care for. Lambert explained that she and Debra Moser rented the entire property, and would swap out where their particular animals were on any given day. (Mutch Dep. at 21). *fn6 Lambert informed Mutch and Sullivan that Debra Moser could not consistently care for her own animals and that it would sometimes be three days to a week between Moser's visits to the farm. (Id. at 22). Lambert expressed concern that Debra Moser was away from the property for long periods of time, leaving Lambert to care for Moser's animals in addition to her own. Lambert also proceeded to give Mutch and Sullivan a tour of the property, pointing out which animals belonged to Debra Moser. It is undisputed that Mutch and Sullivan did not have a warrant to search the property, nor did they have Debra Moser's consent.

Based on the information received from Lambert, Mutch estimated that twenty-one animals belonged to Debra Moser. (Id. at 30). It was during the tour of the farm that Mutch and Sullivan were able to see the brown mare up close. The brown mare was extremely thin and had a dip in its back. (Id. at 35). The animal was soaked with water, and temperatures were cold. In addition, the brown mare had urine and feces mixed in with its hay, which the animal was trying to eat. (Id.). In addition, the horse's right front leg was deformed and looked visibly painful to Officer Mutch. (Id. at 35). Lambert led Mutch around the barn, where Mutch also observed a rabbit, which had no food, no water, and inadequate shelter, along with feces, throughout its cage. (Id. at 37). There were also five ponies present with no food or shelter. (Id. at 37). While there was water in one container, given cold temperatures, the water was partially frozen. (Id. at 39). Mutch then observed the white mare (Id. at 40). The animal was stumbling and "all ribs" (meaning she was thin and emaciated). (Id. at 40). April Lambert reportedly told Mutch that the animal had been losing weight. (Id. at 43).

Lambert provided the officers with Debra Moser's telephone number. Mutch and Sullivan made repeated attempts to reach Debra Moser throughout the day, attempting to get her side of the story regarding the animals. (Id. at 27-28). The officers ultimately tried four to six different telephone numbers for Moser. Mutch and Sullivan also called several local vets in an attempt to determine whether the animals had received care recently. However, none of the vets contacted had information on Debra Moser or her animals. (Id. at 26; see also Doc. 17, Ex. D: printout of map with hand written notations of veterinarians contacted).

At some point, Mutch contacted her supervisor, George Bengal, asking him to send a trailer for the horses that Lambert was going to surrender. (Id. at 31). After observing the condition of the white mare, Mutch called Bengal again, and informed him that she did not believe the animal would survive the night. (Id. at 43). Bengal gave Mutch approval to seize the white mare. At some point, Michael Frantz arrived at the property; Frantz informed Mutch that he sold horses for slaughter, but that Debra Moser would buy some of those horses from him. (Id. at 50). He claimed that Debra Moser was a "nice lady" who had too much on her hands, and provided Mutch with the same phone number that April Lambert already had. (Id. at 50-51).

Officer Smith then arrived with the horse trailer. Smith assisted Mutch and Sullivan in cutting the lock and chain on the gate to the pasture where the white mare was kept. The officers then removed the white mare, and loaded her onto the trailer with the two horses surrendered by Lambert. Afterward, Mutch stapled a notice on Debra Moser's barn stating "WARNING of violation of animal cruelty laws."(Compl. ¶¶ 24-26, 29; see also Doc. 17, Unmarked Exhibit: photographs taken by PSPCA on December 17, 2008). Smith then left with the white mare and the two horses surrendered by Lambert.

Later that night, Debra Moser returned Mutch's phone calls; this call was overheard by Christie Moser. Mutch arranged to meet with Debra Moser the next day. On December 18, 2008, Debra Moser met with Mutch and Sullivan. According to Moser, Mutch threatened her with prosecution for animal cruelty if she did not surrender her animals. (Debra Moser Dep. at 49). *fn7 According to Moser, she involuntarily signed over the white mare, the brown mare, a sheep, and a goat in order to avoid prosecution. According to Mutch, Moser agreed to surrender the brown mare, as she could not afford veterinary care for it. (Mutch Dep. at 67). Mutch contends the other animals were surrendered in order to lighten Moser's physical and financial burden in caring for so many animals. (Id.). Officer Mutch states that she informed Debra Moser she understood how people could get overwhelmed, and that she was not going to cite Moser for animal cruelty. (Id. at 70-71). Officers Mutch and Sullivan also stayed at the property that day for an additional four to five hours, rounding up Debra Moser's ponies ...


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