A civil rights lawsuit challenging the authority of peace officers with the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been dismissed by a federal judge after a lengthy analysis of abstention and claim splitting.
Eastern District Judge Arthur Spatt’s (See Profile) 40-page decision in Kanciper v. Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 12-cv-2104, means that for now the federal courthouse doors are closed to a woman who was arrested by SPCA agents and accused of neglecting animals and endangering a child.
Mona Kanciper, the president and founder of New York Horse Rescue in Manorville, was acquitted of all animal cruelty charges but convicted of child endangerment for allegedly tranquilizing a dog—the first step of a euthanization—in front of a 10-year-old girl. The Appellate Division, Second Department, vacated the conviction in November, finding insufficient evidence that "witnessing the injection of the tranquilizer was likely to result in harm to the physical, mental, or moral welfare of the child" (see New York v. Kanciper, 2012 NY Slip Op 07695, NYLJ, Nov. 16, 2012).
In the federal action, Kanciper brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983 as well as the state Constitution seeking civil rights damages and a declaratory judgment striking down a state statute that grants peace officer status to the SPCA agents. Spatt dismissed the §1983 action under the claim splitting rule since a companion case is pending in state court, and dismissed the declaratory judgment action as contrary to one of the several abstention doctrines recognized by the federal courts.
Alan Edward Sash and Steven Jay Hyman of McLaughlin & Stern, counsel for Kanciper, said they are considering an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
"Our claim is that the SPCA, a private advocacy group with an agenda, pursued those claims with a predetermined result," Sash said. "Peace officer status should be given to law enforcement professionals who are overseen by the government instead of a private advocacy group with an agenda."
The SPCA defendants were represented by Mercedes Colwin, Joseph Salvo and Brian Maurice Oubre of Gordon & Rees in Manhattan. In a statement, Colwin said the defendants are pleased that the federal lawsuit has been dismissed and are confident the state claim will be dismissed too.
"The Court agreed that Ms. Kanciper could not engage in impermissible claim splitting by suing the Suffolk County SPCA and its personnel in state court and then seek similar relief by filing a second lawsuit in federal court," Colwin said in the statement. "This type of duplicative litigation serves no purpose other than to clog the courts."
The New York State Attorney General’s Office had declined an invitation to intervene, but in a June letter to the court Deputy Solicitor General Cecelia Chang said "there are many reasons why this office elects not to intervene" and "respectfully requests that no inference adverse to the state be drawn from our decision."
At the center of the case is the power of peace officers to investigate and prosecute alleged violations of both the Penal Law and the Agriculture and Markets Law.
Records show that Kanciper owns and lives on a 50-acre Long Island horse farm, where she rescues unwanted horses. She claims to have rescued more than 1,500 horses, many destined for destruction, by placing them for adoption or keeping them for horseback riding lessons. Her husband, who is now deceased, served as the resident veterinarian.
In 2009, the SPCA received complaints of "equine abuse" at the farm. Kanciper claims the allegations were brought by someone with a personal vendetta.
In any case, SPCA peace officers, describing themselves as detectives, investigated and, according to the complaint, threatened the plaintiff’s frail and dying husband and later executed a search warrant. According to court papers, the peace officers "ruthlessly interrogated" Kanciper, dug up a portion of her property without consent, invited a TV crew to film the search, ignored her request for counsel and did not read her Miranda rights until eight hours after beginning the search.
Kanciper was indicted on three counts of animal cruelty with regard to dogs and two counts of endangerment of a minor. There were no charges related to the treatment of horses.
Suffolk County Judge James Hudson (See Profile) dismissed one charge and found Kanciper not guilty of the remaining counts, with the exception of the endangering charge. That charge was based on an allegation that Kanciper injected a dangerous, aggressive dog with a tranquilizer in front of a 10-year-old child. But a unanimous panel of the Second Department reversed the conviction. Ultimately, Kanciper was exonerated of all five charges.
In 2011, Kanciper, represented at that time by White & Case, filed a state claim in Suffolk County Supreme Court accusing the SPCA of abuse of process, tortious interference, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent investigation and other causes of action. She later filed an Article 78 petition in Suffolk County Supreme Court to declare the SPCA a "public entity" subject to the Freedom of Information Law. She filed the federal action in 2012. Both of the state cases are pending before Justice Peter Mayer (See Profile).
Although Kanciper argued that the Supreme Court action had nothing to do with the civil rights claims in federal court, the defendants successfully sought dismissal, asserting various abstention doctrines as well as "claim splitting," or bringing a similar matter in different jurisdictions.
Spatt considered several U.S. Supreme Court precedents, dating back to 1941, which outline the conditions under which federal courts should abstain from deciding state-law claims: Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman, 312 U.S. 496 (1941); Brillhart v. Excess Ins. of Am., 316 U.S. 491 (1942); Burford v. Sun Oil, 319 U.S. 315 (1943); Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); and Wilton v. Seven Falls, 515 U.S. 277, 286 (1995). Spatt found that only Brillhart, as clarified by the Supreme Court in Wilton, applied.
"The Brillhart decision ‘indicated that, at least where another suit involving the same parties and presenting opportunity for ventilation of the same state law issues is pending in state court, a district court might be indulging in ‘[g]ratuitous interference,’ if it permitted the federal declaratory action to proceed,’" Spatt wrote, quoting from Wilton and Brillhart.
The judge said the Supreme Court has admonished that it is not the function of the federal courts "to find our way through a maze of [state] statutes and decisions." He said Kanciper’s claims "can better be settled in the pending state proceeding, which would provide an adequate forum for the declarations that the Plaintiff seeks."
Sash said the consequence is that the state court "will have to decide significant issues of federal law." Hyman stressed that Kanciper is not only seeking damages, but declaratory relief he said should be resolved in a federal court.
"We are seeking to have the statute, which permits the SPCA, to go out and arrest people and search their homes, declared unconstitutional," Hyman said. "On that issue, we believe Judge Spatt…was wrong in finding that the claim should be sent to state court. We believe that under the U.S. Constitution it is not appropriate for a private agency to have state powers. We are seriously considering an appeal in this matter, but will obviously continue to pursue the state action as well."
@|John Caher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.