Thursday, May 13, 2010
C.A. Tosses Suit Over Seizure of Horses From Sanctuary
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday threw out a suit by an Antelope Valley horse sanctuary claiming the County of Los Angeles wrongfully seized 109 horses for neglect.
Div. Seven in an unpublished opinion said a trial court did not err in relying on an animal control hearing officer’s report finding that the seizure was proper because the animals at Equus Sanctuary in Pearblossom were neglected and not provided veterinary care.
County agents entered the premises of the nonprofit corporation—which identified its mission as rescuing old, sick, injured or disabled horses from slaughter—and seized the horses, 14 cats and a dog in June 2008 following complaints about animals on the property.
Investigators said some horses were emaciated, had open sores or could barely walk, and lacked food and water. They also said at least a dozen horses had to be euthanized, along with the cats and dog.
The facility’s caretaker, Janis Ridgeway Damiani, was charged with 30 counts of animal cruelty, but pled guilty to two counts under an agreement with prosecutors. She was sentenced to two years and eight months in state prison.
The county in September 2008 presented Equus with a bill for the cost of the seizure, impoundment, care and boarding fees for the horses. The bill included a copy of a report by a hearing officer from the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority in Downey following the horses’ seizure determining that it was valid under Penal Code Sec. 597.1.
Equus then brought claims for conversion, trespass to chattels and other claims against the county, alleging that the seizure was wrongful.
The county demurred, pointing to the hearing officer’s report and Damiani’s conviction, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David L. Minning dismissed the action.
Minning—taking judicial notice of an official transcript of the postseizure hearing, the hearing officer’s report, the criminal complaint against Damiani and a certified copy of her conviction record—said Equus’ allegations of wrongful seizure were “directly contradicted” by the judicially noticed facts.
He also found that the county’s decision to seize the horses was discretionary, giving the county immunity from liability for the decision to do so.
On appeal, Equus challenged Minning’s decision to take judicial notice of the documents, arguing that the transcript and the report did not relate to an “official” act because the hearing officer’s employer, SEAACA, was a private entity.
But Justice Frank Y. Jackson wrote that Sec. 597.1 made it clear that notice could be taken of the report because the hearing itself was an act of the county’s Department of Animal Care and Control, a local administrative agency under Evidence Code Sec. 452.
He also rejected Equus’ argument that the hearing report could not be judicially noticed because it was not final, having only been served on their attorney. Assuming for the sake of argument that the report did not become final 90 days after it was mailed to Equus’ counsel, or 90 days after Equus received a copy of the report along with the county’s bill, Jackson said Equus’ delay was subject to the defense of laches.
“Plaintiffs’ failure to file a petition for writ of mandate and continued insistence that the administrative decision is not yet final, despite having indisputably received notice of that decision, flies in the face of common sense,” he wrote. “Their delay in filing a petition and the prejudice which unquestionably would result were they to be permitted to file such a petition at this juncture in the proceedings call for the application of the doctrine of laches to bar any challenge to the administrative decision.”
Justice Fred Woods and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John L. Segal, sitting by assignment, joined Jackson in his opinion.
The case is Equus Sanctuary v. County of Los Angeles, B216249.
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