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Winkler v. Commonwealth, Department of Agriculture

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 16, 2014

MIRIAM WINKLER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA-DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

LAWRENCE F. STENGEL, District Judge.

Miriam Winkler is suing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and three employees of its Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.[1] She brings various state law tort claims and violations of the Constitutions of both the United States and Pennsylvania. The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss to which the plaintiff responded. For the following reasons, I will grant the motion in its entirety.

I. BACKGROUND

Ms. Winkler is an experienced and nationally-known dog breeder, who sold her dogs around the world for $2, 500 each. From 2006 until 2010, she was the owner/operator of "Judge's Choice, " where she bred Bichon Frises and Neapolitan Mastiffs. As a licensed kennel, Judge's Choice was subject to state regulations. For example, each licensed kennel must be inspected at least twice per calendar year, and the owners must allow the inspecting state employees onto the property. The dog law includes various administrative, civil, and criminal penalties for violations. Before December 8, 2008, the law required kennel inspections only once per calendar year. Judge's Choice was regularly inspected by dog wardens, including Defendant Orlando Aguirre. Past inspections revealed "minimal, if any, issues in need of attention." The complaint mentions, however, that on numerous occasions before June 2010, Defendant Aguirre sexually harassed Ms. Winkler, including unwanted touching and sexual advances. She chose to not report his conduct for fear of retaliation.

On April 27, 2010, Defendant Aguirre and two other dog wardens, Defendants Diane Buhl and Kathy Andrews, conducted an inspection of Judge's Choice. Ms. Winkler was present and granted them access to the kennel. During the inspection, these individual defendants "suddenly" advised Ms. Winkler to surrender the custody of her dogs to them or they would file criminal charges. Ms. Winkler insists that the dogs were "healthy, " but agreed to surrender custody of twenty Bichon Frises and one Border Collie, dogs worth $50, 000. She claims she did so because she was "unaware of her legal rights, " "in fear of the threats from Defendant Aguirre, Defendant Buhl and Defendant Andrews." Ms. Winkler signed "a document with blanks not filled in." Allegedly, Defendant Aguirre told her that because she had not cooperated with him by agreeing to be alone with him, she was not "playing ball" and "would be sorry."

The individual defendants turned the dogs over to the SPCA and/or other rescue organizations. There is no indication in the complaint that Ms. Winkler attempted to get any of the dogs back into her own custody.

On June 4, 2010, Defendants Aguirre and Buhl returned to Judge's Choice, but Ms. Winkler was not present. The complaint alleges that Defendants Aguirre and Buhl entered the kennel without a warrant and caused a Neapolitan Mastiff to escape from the air-conditioned kennel. The dog was unable to return to the kennel and died from over-exposure to the extreme heat.

Thereafter, the three individual defendants filed the following charges under the Dog Law against Ms. Winkler: Unlawful Operation of a Kennel without a License, 3 P.S. § 459-207(a.1)(1); Making False Statements/Concealing Facts, 3 P.S. § 459-801; three counts of Failure to Keep Kennel in Sanitary and Humane Condition, 3 P.S. § 459-207(b); Kennel Licensee/Owner Failure to Respond to Notice, 3 P.S. § 402(d); and Failure to Keep Proper Kennel Records, 3 P.S. § 459-207(c). The Pennsylvania State Police filed the following criminal charges against Ms. Winkler under the Crimes Code: 21 counts of Cruelty to Animals, 18 P.S. § 511; and one count of Criminal Conspiracy-Cruelty to Animals, 18 P.S. § 903.

Magisterial District Judge Rod R. Beck conducted a trial on the charges, which were all summary offenses. On September 29, 2010, Judge Beck found Ms. Winkler guilty of Unlawful Operation of Kennel without a License, Making False Statements/Concealing Facts, and three of the Cruelty to Animals charges. Ms. Winkler was sentenced to pay fines and costs of $200.00 for each conviction.

Ms. Winkler alleges that during the trial, Defendants Aguirre, Buhl, and Andrews "committed perjury by submitting as evidence of Plaintiff's violations, photographs of other kennels represented as that of Plaintiff." Ms. Winkler appealed the convictions and sentences to the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, thereby invalidating Judge Beck's verdict and sentence. In the Court of Common Pleas, Ms. Winkler reached a plea agreement where she agreed to reinstatement of Judge Beck's convictions for the charges of Unlawful Operation of Kennel without a License and Making False Statements/Concealing Facts. In exchange, the prosecution agreed to Ms. Winkler's entry into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program ("ARD") program and withdrew further prosecution of the three Cruelty to Animal charges of which Judge Beck had found Plaintiff guilty.

Ms. Winkler filed an eleven count complaint in this court alleging that her United States Constitutional rights had been violated by the Commonwealth and the individual defendants, and that they had also violated the due process clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The complaint also alleges claims of trespass, conversion, and civil conspiracy against the individual defendants. Ms. Winkler seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney's fees, costs of litigation, and interest.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure examines the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The factual allegations must be sufficient to make the claim for relief more than just speculative. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss, a federal court must construe the complaint liberally, accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all plausible inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id .; see also D.P. Enters. v. Bucks County Cmty. Coll. , 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984).

It remains true that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a plaintiff to plead in detail all of the facts upon which he bases his claim. Rather, the Rules require "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A complaint must, however, "allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct, " Twombly , 550 U.S. at 564, and it must contain enough factual matters to suggest the required elements of the claim or to "raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" those elements. Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556). Neither "bald assertions" nor "vague and conclusory ...


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