Pepper’s commitment to pro bono access to justice extends to all in our society – even beyond humans. The firm was honored November 4 for its pro bono work on behalf of abused and neglected animals by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) at its annual Bark and Whine Gala, held at URBN at the Navy Yard. This was the first time that PSPCA honored a law firm at the event, which also helped mark the organization’s 150th anniversary.
In addition to Pepper, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was honored at the gala for his animal welfare achievements while serving as governor from 2003 to 2011, including signing legislation to improve the standard of care for dogs in kennels, and adding positions to the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement in the Department of Agriculture; as were legendary Phillies shortstop, coach and manager Larry Bowa and his wife Patty, who were recognized for their support of PSPCA, including regular donations of treats and supplies.
Managing Partner Thomas J. Cole Jr. accepted the honor on behalf of the firm. He was joined at the event by of counsel Jessica A. Rickabaugh, associates Kristopher Berr and Abel Garza, and senior paralegal Susan M. Henry, all of whom work on PSPCA cases with retired partner J. Gregg Miller. Miller was unable to attend the gala, but was featured in a video presentation on the three honorees that was shown at the event.
Miller's original inspiration for getting involved in animal advocacy work was his daughter Meg, who as a University of Colorado student worked to pass a referendum there banning a spring bear hunt. The referendum was a success, and Meg was hooked on animal welfare advocacy, which led to her taking a job after graduation with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) in Portland, Ore.
“The ALDF wanted to support a case that was pending in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which is seated in Philadelphia. Meg contacted me about the case, and former Pepper associate Enger McCartney-Smith and I agreed to prepare an amicus brief for the organization. The particular issue in question was an interesting one – is there a cause of action in Pennsylvania for intentional infliction of emotional distress where the distress is caused by harming an animal, as opposed to a person.”
The case involved a Muhlenberg Township police officer, who shot and killed a family’s Rottweiler, which had gotten loose while the family was in the process of moving. The owners saw the incident unfold, and called out to the officer not to shoot the dog, which was not acting aggressively toward the officer.
“We wrote an amicus brief, and between our advocacy and the advocacy of the family’s lawyer, the Third Circuit agreed that there is such a cause of action in Pennsylvania where an animal is being harmed,” Miller said.
After that experience, Miller too was hooked. In 2010, when he retired after more than 40 years of practicing bankruptcy law, he went back to his alma mater, Penn Law, and took a one-semester seminar in animal law. Penn is one of more than 100 law schools around the country that offer animal law courses.
“I was interested in animal welfare at that point, so I took the course and then knocked on the PSPCA’s door and said, ‘Put me to work,’” Miller said. “I met with the late George Bengal, who was the director of humane law enforcement at the time, and his right-hand person Nicole Wilson [who currently holds that title], and they said they were looking for a civil solution to a number of animal law issues.”
In response, Miller developed a pleading and a memorandum of law for civil animal cases, which he and other Peppers have been able to use repeatedly in cases filed in order to gain title to an animal seized from an abusive owner.
“Most people think that as soon as the PSPCA properly seizes an animal, it becomes the owner of the animal. That’s not true,” Miller said. “The law permits PSPCA to take possession of an animal that’s being abused, and to provide veterinary care, food and shelter for the animal, but it doesn’t allow the organization to become the owner. That creates a problem when they want to adopt out the animal. That’s the goal in everything PSPCA does - adopt out the animal to a good home.”
Miller put his model documents to work, filing them in a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court case, which he promptly won. That kicked off a success streak that continues today – using the documents he developed, Miller has never lost this type of case, nor have any of the other Pepper attorneys who handle these cases.
The PSPCA’s jurisdiction includes the 30+ counties in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, going as far west as Centre County. Pepper’s Harrisburg office helps with cases that are filed in Central Pennsylvania. In fact, nearly every attorney in the Harrisburg office has volunteered for at least one matter for the PSPCA, and their work has spanned at least 12 Central Pennsylvania counties.
In addition to cases involving gaining title to seized animals, Pepper has also worked on cases filed under a 2013 Pennsylvania statute called the “Costs of Care of Seized Animals Act,” which provides for the PSPCA to be reimbursed for the veterinary care, food and shelter it provides for seized animals. Miller explained that criminal animal abuse cases often take a long time to wind their way through the court system.
“In dogfighting cases, for example, the people running the ring often appeal and drag the case out. Meanwhile, the PSPCA has custody of the fighting animals,” Miller said. “This statute is designed to make the owners of the fighting dogs (or any other animals the PSPCA has seized) pay for the costs of care, bringing in the money immediately to start reimbursing the PSPCA.”
Given that the statute is relatively new, the Pepper team has only handled a few such cases. Pepper alumnus Tucker Hull handled a Costs of Care of Seized Animals Act case for another animal rescue association in York County, and won a $44,000 judgment against an abusive animal owner. Miller and Rickabaugh are about to bring a similar suit against an abusive owner in Lehigh County.
Pepper also petitions Common Pleas Courts to admit officers of the PSPCA as Humane Society Police Officers (HSPOs) in their respective counties in order to enforce Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty laws. Senior paralegal Sue Henry prepares the petitions for this designation, and Pepper's attorneys go to court with the officers. An HSPO cannot operate in a county without an order from the Common Pleas Court and taking the oath of office in that county.
Miller was honored last year for his animal advocacy work for PSPCA by the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania as part of the district’s annual Pro Bono Publico Awards ceremony. This honor from PSPCA marks the first time the firm has been recognized for its legal work on behalf of abused animals.