Judge awards $50K-plus in attorney's fees, costs in improper dog seizure case against PSPCA

By Jon Campisi | Sep 25, 2013

U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted an animal rescue group’s petition for attorney’s fees and costs in a civil rights case the plaintiff won against the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, awarded Sixth Angel Shepherd Rescue more than $50,000 in lawyer’s fees and litigation costs relating to a suit it brought against the PSPCA and various officials in the spring of 2010 alleging the defendants improperly confiscated three of the plaintiffs’ dogs in violation of state law and the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

The plaintiffs, who also included Sixth Angel founder Terry Silva, had asserted additional claims against the defendants for conversion and bailment based on the PSPCA’s failure to care for the “live property of the Plaintiffs.”

The April 2010 complaint alleged that the defendants improperly took possession of three dogs the plaintiffs were helping to temporarily care for after the animals were transported from out-of-state.

The defendants took the canines after Pennsylvania’s dog warden intercepted the April 10, 2010, transfer of the animals from those transporting them from down south to the plaintiffs, the suit stated.

Most of the 16 dogs who were temporarily seized by the PSPCA were soon released to other parties, but the defendants initially refused to turn over the plaintiffs’ three dogs, with officials saying the animals were being held onto as part of an “investigation,” the suit had contended.

The lawsuit alleged that the three dogs were crated and not properly cared for at the animal shelter operated by the PSPCA in Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood.

Sixth Angel, the suit had maintained, is a PSPCA-approved rescue that has regularly taken possession of dogs housed at the Philadelphia shelter.

Days after the dogs were taken by the PSPCA, an official there told Silva, Sixth Avenue’s owner, that the three dogs in question would only be released to other adopters and other rescues, the lawsuit had stated.

The plaintiffs had argued that only they own the three dogs in question, and to give the animals to any other person or organization would be an unlawful seizure of the plaintiffs’ property.

The plaintiffs sued under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, alleging that the defendants took the dogs in violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to property and liberty with procedural and substantive due process.

Two additional defendants named in the litigation were George Bengal, the PSPCA’s director of investigations, and Nicole Wilson, one of the PSPCA’s investigating officers.

The record shows that on April 21, 2010, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction based on the conversion claim, and ordered the defendants to return the dogs to the plaintiffs.

The trial judge did not address the merits of the plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claims.

The defendants appealed the judge’s decision, but the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the lower court’s decision.

This past April, the parties informed Schiller, the judge, that the only remaining issues in the case were attorney’s fees and costs.

The plaintiffs initially sought more than $75,000 in lawyer’s fees and $4,420 in costs, but the judge subsequently ordered the plaintiffs to file a more detailed itemization of costs, excluding the costs the plaintiff’s were already granted by the Third Circuit, the record shows.

The plaintiffs amended their motion to ask for $84,665 in attorneys’ fees and $5,786 in costs, the record shows.

And while the defendants conceded the plaintiffs are entitled to the requested relief, the PSPCA and its officials objected to the cited the number of hours spent, the hourly billing rate proposed by the plaintiffs, and the total proposed costs.

The PSPCA also asked the court to reduce the attorney’s fees by $6,919.06, which represented the cost of the veterinary care administered to the plaintiffs’ dogs after their confiscation.

Schiller, the judge, noted that while attorney’s fees are typically not recoverable on a conversion claim in Pennsylvania, they can be awarded to a prevailing party in an action to enforce Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act.

“If a federal claim is substantial enough to support supplemental jurisdiction over a related state law claim, then it is substantial enough to support an award of fees to a party who prevails only on the state law claim,” Schiller wrote.

Schiller also noted that in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the court made a “merits-based” determination that entitles the plaintiffs to attorney’s fees.

“The Court found that ‘[d]efendants unquestionably deprived Plaintiffs of their right in their property, an intrusion to which Plaintiffs certainly did not consent, and for which Defendants fail to offer any lawful justification,’” the judicial memorandum states.

As for the attorney’s fees, the judge determined that plaintiff Silva, who is also a lawyer, and had initiated the case on behalf of herself and her organization, was entitled to fees based on 194.7 hours of work, not the requested 213.2 hours’ worth of work.

Schiller excluded hours spent on unsuccessful and unrelated motions, as well as hours worked on other matters.

The judge also determined that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of establishing that $350 is a reasonable hourly rate for Silva’s work.

Schiller instead based his calculation on an hourly rate of $250.

In the end, Silva was awarded attorney’s fees in the amount of $50,418.75, including $48,675 for the principal litigation and $1,743.75 for the litigation over attorney’s fees.

Schiller also declined the defense request to take off the more than $6,000 for the veterinary care given to the dogs, writing that the court would not “reward Defendants for improperly confiscating Plaintiffs’ dogs.”

As for costs, Schiller awarded a total of $1,344.50, writing that some of the requested costs were duplicative.

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