When a colleague and friend of Greensboro attorney Bob Cone called and said he had a dog of a case for him, he wasn’t kidding.
The Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, Canine Partners for Life, needed to retrieve one of its service dogs from a home in Browns Summit, N.C., where it suspected the dog was being abused.
After mulling his options, Cone realized that the most obvious tactic would also be the most effective.
He’d channel his inner repo man and repossess the dog.
Some might call that a simplistic and somewhat callous approach to a possibly sensitive situation. But what Cone was able to accomplish with some quick thinking and the help of his adversary, Barry Snyder of Greensboro, saved not only time and money for his client but maybe even the lives of the dog and its custodian.
“This was the type of situation where good lawyers were thinking not about winning the case but rather about resolving the problem,” Cone said. “We were able to give the [custodian] a second chance and at the same time ensure the organization that [he] would take good care of the dog.”
Canine Partners for Life raises and trains dogs for placement with people who have physical, developmental or cognitive disabilities. Each dog is trained to meet the needs of a specific individual.
In order to ensure that the placement works well for both human and dog, the organization requires the recipient to enter into a legally binding transfer agreement detailing his obligations for care and training of the dog. The agreement gives the person possession, but not ownership, of the dog for as long as he abides by the terms of the agreement.
That’s how a yellow lab named “Willie” found his way to Browns Summit in Nov. 2008 — to serve as a seizure alert dog for a man with epilepsy. (The lawyers requested that the man’s name not be disclosed.)
Over the three years that followed, Willie responded quickly when he sensed the onset of a seizure, saving the man from serious harm and even death, according to Snyder. But in late 2011, Canine Partners for Life received reports of abuse from Guilford County animal control officers. A witness had reported that Willie’s custodian had been using a choke chain on the dog, had at least once lifted him off the ground by the choke chain and had allowed him to wander off his property unsupervised – all violations of his transfer agreement.
In Jan. 2012, the group sent the man a letter demanding that he return the dog as provided in the agreement, but the man refused.
Enter Bob Cone. He considered the obvious options of a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction, but then he noticed that the agreement gave the group the absolute right to take the dog back under certain conditions – which included incidents of abuse. Such a provision gave the group the right to use the state’s “claim and delivery” statute, typically used to repossess collateral as part of a claim on an underlying debt.
“If the contract didn’t say that we had the right to take the dog back, then the claim and delivery statute wouldn’t have been any good to us. We would have had to go the TRO route,” Cone said. “Fortunately, I was able to find some machinery that already existed which I think saved everybody some money.”
Cone filed a claim and delivery complaint in the Guilford County District Court on Feb. 13, 2012, and Willie’s custodian was notified of a hearing set for March 12, at which time temporary possession of Willie would be determined. In the meantime, boilerplate language in the notice about preserving the property pending the hearing prohibited the man from harming the dog or otherwise removing him from the state.
“That gave us protection until the time of the hearing,” Cone said. “We didn’t know if that was a concern, but of course under the terms of the contract he was already obligated to take care of the dog. “
Though the claim and delivery hearing would have determined rights of temporary possession, the owner still had the right to a final hearing on that question.
But both attorneys recognized and appreciated the bond that Willie and the custodian had developed. Snyder proposed that the matter be resolved by a consent order which would allow Willie to stay put, provided that the man took counseling classes, improved his overall care of the dog, constructed a fence around his property to keep the dog from wandering, and agreed to random inspection. Cone was able to persuade Canine Partners for Life that such an order was appropriate and would further the group’s mission.
“It came down to simply protecting and preserving life,” said Snyder. “Willie had saved my client’s life on numerous occasions in the past. He was trained of course, and he acted instinctively. As for my client, perhaps a court order was needed to address his moral responsibility in the matter.”