C.A. Reinstates Action to Curtail County’s Killing of Dogs
Justices Hold That Demurrer Improperly Sustained to Writ Petition Contending Los Angeles County Is Not in Compliance With Hayden Act’s Restrictions on Putting Impounded Dogs to Death
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The County of Los Angeles may not continue to put stray dogs to death where they are wanted by an animal rescue group unless one of three exceptions exists to the state’s anti-euthanasia policy, Div. Five of the Court of Appeal for this district held yesterday, reinstating a petition for a writ of mandate.
Justice Carl H. Moor authored the opinion. It reverses a judgment of dismissal entered after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant sustained a demurrer without leave to amend to a petition filed by two rescue groups, Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center, Inc. and Lucky Pup Dog Rescue.
They had asked that particular dogs be released to them but, instead, the county’s Department of Animal Care and Control killed them, pursuant to a policy of destroying dogs it deems to have “behavioral problems” or is adoptable or treatable.
The rescue groups argue that experts estimate less than one percent of the impounded animals suffer from a serious illness or injury, yet, according to county statistics, 30 percent of those animals were put to death between July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021—with the Agoura Animal Care Center killing 64 percent of the impounded animals during that period.
The petitioners assert that the county is in violation of provisions of the Hayden Act, which went into effect on July 1, 1999 and, among other things, ended the practice of killing dogs 72 hours after being impounded. The act added sections to the Food and Agriculture Code including §17005(a), which declares:
“It is the policy of the state that no adoptable animal should be euthanized if it can be adopted into a suitable home.”
With specific reference to dogs, §31108(b)(1) provides, in part (with emphasis added by Moor):
“Except as provided in Section 17006, any stray dog that is impounded pursuant to this division shall, before the euthanasia of that animal, be released to a nonprofit, as defined in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, animal rescue or adoption organization if requested by the organization before the scheduled euthanasia of that animal.”
Sec. 17006 says:
“Animals that are irremediably suffering from a serious illness or severe injury shall not be held for owner redemption or adoption. Newborn animals that need maternal care and have been impounded without their mothers may be euthanized without being held for owner redemption or adoption.”
Additionally, §31108.5(b) authorizes putting to death a dog with “a history of vicious or dangerous behavior documented by the agency charged with enforcing state and local animal laws.”
“The Hayden Act provides no other exceptions to the County’s duty to release dogs upon request. Had the Legislature intended to restrict the release requirement only to adoptable or treatable dogs, it could have done so.”
‘[W]e conclude that section 31108 does not confer the County discretion to withhold a dog on the basis that the County has deemed it to have ‘behavioral problems’ or has determined that it is unadoptable and untreatable. Rather, section 31108 imposes a mandatory duty on the County to release such animals upon request from a qualified organization.”
Chalfant had expressed this contrary view:
“Petitioners’ interpretation of section 31108(b)(1) would require that a stray dog with a behavioral or temperamental defect must be released to an animal rescue organization, and yet that organization could not put it up for adoption.”
The petitioners argued that behavior of a dog in an animal shelter is not a reliable indicator of how that dog would behave in a home. The judge responded:
“This contention, if true, is irrelevant. The statutory interpretation issue is who gets to decide whether a dog is a behavioral or temperamental problem yet still subject to treatment to become adoptable under section 17005, the shelter or the animal rescue organization? Petitioners’ argument that the animal rescue organization should get to decide through a mandatory release under section 31108(b)(1) would be an abdication of the County’s responsibility to protect the public. Reliable or not, the County, not the animal rescue organization, must decide whether an animal is a safety risk to the public. Any other rule would be inconsistent with section 17005(a).”
That section defines “adoptable animals” as those who “have manifested no sign of a behavioral or temperamental defect that could pose a health or safety risk or otherwise make the animal unsuitable for placement as a pet, and have manifested no sign of disease, injury, or congenital or hereditary condition that adversely affects the health of the animal or that is likely to adversely affect the animal’s health in the future.”
While reversing Chalfant’s decision, the justices did agree with one aspect of his ruling. He rejected the petitioners’ contention that by making reference to “a nonprofit, as defined in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code,” the Legislature intended that any rescue group with §501(c)(3) be able to compel transfer to it of a dog.
Lucky Pup Dog Rescue had not been certified by the county. Moor said:
“Section 31108 explicitly defines the term ‘nonprofit’ by reference the Internal Revenue Code. But the placement of that definition after the word ‘nonprofit’ alone, and not in relation to modifying the phrase “animal rescue or adoption organization,” makes clear that the Internal Revenue Code has no role in the definition of such organizations. Nor do Appellants provide any support for, or common-sense reason to reach, the conclusion that the Legislature deferred to a taxing authority the determination of which organizations have the qualifications to rescue animals scheduled for euthanasia. Looking beyond section 31108, no other provision of the Hayden Act defines or explains what qualifies a non-profit organization as an ‘animal rescue or adoption organization.’ Because the Hayden Act is silent on this point, the County must exercise its judgment to make that determination.”
The rescue groups contended that the county must be brought into compliance not only with §31108, relating to stray dogs, but also §31752 pertaining to cats, §31753 which references rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, potbellied pigs, birds, lizards, snakes, turtles, and tortoises, and §31754, dealing with owner-relinquished animals.
Moor said in a footnote:
“Our ruling on the meaning of section 31108 is sufficient grounds to conclude that it was error to grant the County’s demurrer and enter judgment against Appellants. Accordingly, we do not reach a definitive interpretation of the provisions cited in Appellants’ petition relating to other shelter animals.”
The case is Santa Paula Animal Rescue v. County of Los Angeles, 2023 S.O.S. 3406.
Sheldon Eisenberg and Nairi Shirinian of the Santa Monica law firm of Sullivan & Triggs argued for the petitioners and Jill Williams and John J. Stumreiter of the downtown Los Angeles firm of Carpenter, Rothans & Dumont joined with Deputy County Counsel Armita Radjabian in representing the county.
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