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City Workers Who Seized Neglected Pets Get Some Qualified Immunity

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on September 19, 2014 3:24 PM

From Tennessee comes a pretty serious case of animal neglect on the part of United Pet Supply, which operates pet stores. After receiving complaints about animal neglect, Chattanooga animal welfare workers visited the store, observing lots of neglected animals in pretty bad conditions. (See pages 5-6 of the opinion for more of the details.)

City workers seized the animals, revoked Pet Supply's license to sell animals on the spot, and cited the company for various violations. Pet Supply commenced a suit in federal court against the animal welfare workers, alleging due process and Fourth Amendment violations. The district court granted the city workers qualified immunity on some claims, but denied summary judgment on other claims, finding there were factual disputes.

Ah, Our Old Friend Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity is, of course, the state's go-to defense for claims brought under 42 USC § 1983. It insulates state actors from civil rights actions so long as they acted in accordance with well-established law. In other words, "qualified immunity provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law."

This was a thorny issue: Chattanooga contracted with a private company, McKamey, for its animal welfare department. Two of the people involved in seizing the animals were acting as "special police officers," so they were entitled to qualified immunity in their official capacities. A third was not; she was a McKamey employee.

Even though the city contracted with McKamey, that alone wasn't enough to bring it into the fold. Indeed, the lack of direct government supervision, combined with the existence of competitors in the market, steered the court away from qualified immunity for the McKamey contractor.

Applying Qualified Immunity

As to the two "special police officers," the question was whether they violated a clearly established right. Pet Supply claimed that the initial seizure of the animals without a hearing violated its right to due process; however, the Sixth Circuit said that the exigency of alleviating "an emergency situation" didn't violate due process.

The revocation of the permit, however, did violate due process, and the court found that unilaterally revoking Pet Supply's permit to sell animals was plainly unconstitutional. No qualified immunity on this one.

Finally, the court found no Fourth Amendment violation as to animals. Even though animal welfare workers seized animals without a warrant, the seizure was justified by exigent circumstances (removing the animals immediately from harmful conditions). Not so for business records: There was no need to take those without a warrant.

In the end, Pet Supply wins on summary judgment on the business records issue and its claims against the McKamey employee. One suspects, however, that after the bad PR surrounding this case, they won't be selling a whole lot of puppies.

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