Judge dismisses suit by Phila. basset hound breeder against PSPCA

By Jon Campisi | Apr 27, 2012

A judge has agreed to dismiss a lawsuit by a woman well known in Philadelphia’s sporting dog circuit against the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, its director of law enforcement and one of the group’s humane officers.

A judge has agreed to dismiss a lawsuit by a woman well known in Philadelphia’s sporting dog circuit against the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, its director of law enforcement and one of the group’s humane officers.

Wendy Willard, of the city’s Roxborough neighborhood, who owns a nationally recognized pack of basset hounds, sued the PSPCA and its agents last summer contending that an earlier raid on her property in connection with allegations of animal mistreatment was unwarranted.

In her lawsuit, filed on July 18, 2011, Willard alleged civil rights violations. She sought declaratory judgment that the defendants, including the PSPCA’s Law Enforcement Director, George Bengal, and Humane Officer Tara Loller, violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution when they searched her property and seized some dogs in 2009.

According to background information on the case, Loller went to visit Willard’s residence on July 21, 2009, but was unable to connect with the homeowner since she wasn’t at the residence.

Loller left a business card at the premises, and returned six days later, this time accompanied by Bengal, another PSPCA officer and two state dog wardens.

The agents requested permission to search Willard’s exterior heated barn, which housed 21 of her 23 basset hounds, according to the background information on the case.

Willard, however, refused to allow the search of her property, a 340-acre tract that abuts the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education near the Philadelphia-Montgomery County border.

The lawsuit claimed that after being denied the permission to search her property, the officers and dog wardens “trespassed” on the Schuylkill Center’s property, and the property of another adjoining landowner, and proceeded to observe Willard cleaning the outdoor exercise area where the dogs romp.

The officers went on to obtain a search warrant, using as probable cause the allegations that they had observed Willard cleaning feces from the dogs’ exercise area behind her barn and that Willard was not permitting them to investigate her.

The dog wardens also applied for, and subsequently received, their own search warrant, based solely on the number of dogs at the property, which serves as probable cause for dog wardens under state law, but not for the PSPCA, the court record shows.

On July 27, 2009, the humane officers, along with officers from the Philadelphia Police Department, once again descended upon Willard’s property to execute the search warrants.

During the search, Loller, the humane officer, informed Willard that she had violated Philadelphia’s “limit law,” which prohibits keeping more than 12 dogs in a residential dwelling, and stating that the PSPCA would have to seize some of Willard’s dogs to bring her into compliance with the local ordinance.

Willard turned over 11 of her dogs, but later claimed she signed them over to the agency under duress, and that she was coerced into signing the surrender agreement.

“Willard, who was tearful and distraught, allegedly did not have time to read the agreements before surrendering her dogs,” the court ruling states.

Ten of Willard’s dogs were subsequently sterilized and sold or placed for adoption by the PSPCA, the ruling states, and the 11th was euthanized following a botched surgical procedure.

In August 2009, Willard received 12 citations by the PSPCA for depriving her dogs of veterinary care, 10 citations for depriving her dogs of access to clean and sanitary shelter, and two code violation notices for violating the “Animal Sounds” law, the background information shows.

The code violations were eventually dismissed, and Willard has never been convicted of any of the other 22 citations, the record shows.

Two years later, Willard filed her complaint at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The defendants followed up with a motion to dismiss, arguing that Willard failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn, Jr. agreed.

“Defendants argue that Willard’s claim fails because she has not alleged that she availed herself of the post-deprivation remedies available to her, and because she has not alleged that those remedies are inadequate,” Yohn wrote. “I agree.”

In his ruling, Yohn faulted Willard for not alleging in her complaint that she “availed herself of the remedy embodied in Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 588.”

Willard instead addressed post-deprivation remedies in her omnibus pretrial motion challenging the validity of the search warrant used during the seizure of her dogs.

Yohn wrote that that should have been addressed in her complaint.

“This will not suffice,” Yohn wrote. “Even if I take judicial notice of this exhibit, Willard alleges only that she made an omnibus motion – she does not address what became of the motion.

“She could have withdrawn the motion, she could have had a hearing on it, a judge could have granted it, or a judge could have denied it,” Yohn continued. “I will not search through twenty-two separate state dockets related to this matter in an effort to find such basic information, which Willard should have pleaded in her complaint.”

Yohn further wrote that Willard has not sufficiently alleged a Section 1983 procedural due-process claim against any of the defendants.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice.

Willard’s case, which was the subject of ongoing local headlines at the time of the raid, drew the attention of sporting dog advocates who supported Willard in her contention that animal authorities simply didn’t understand the nature of basset hound packs.

Willard claimed in her complaint to be an “internationally recognized” dog breeder. Her pack was known as the Murder Hollow Bassets, named for the nickname given to the area in Northwest Philadelphia in which her estate is located.

Willard is a retired public school teacher and Ivy League graduate who claimed in her lawsuit that she had spent tens of thousands of dollars to care for her dogs, including the $30,000 on the heated barn that was specially built for the basset hounds, and that was the subject of the animal welfare raid.

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