Second Circuit Finds SPCA Employees Acted Under Color of State Law During Animal Cruelty Investigation; Grants Qualified Immunity to Defendants

Posted on September 11, 2012

Attorneys at Young/Sommer, including Sue Adler as lead counsel, recently won an important decision in a federal appellate case that examined the scope of the authority of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) to spay/neuter animals seized during animal cruelty investigations. The plaintiff in Fabrikant v. French, 2012 WL 3518527 (2d Cir. 2012) was arrested on animal cruelty charges after Ulster County SPCA peace officers, accompanied by sheriff’s officers, visited her house with a search warrant and found numerous dogs crowded in cages and crates, urine and feces throughout the house and in bags, and evidence that several dogs and cats were suffering from serious medical conditions. All but two dogs were removed from the house and delivered to the SPCA, where they were fed, cleaned, and treated; while the criminal proceedings were pending, the SPCA arranged for the dogs to be spayed or neutered. The plaintiff brought a federal civil rights suit against the SPCA and various persons under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that included allegations of malicious prosecution and violation of due process rights, among other state and federal claims. The district court initially dismissed the action on defendants’ motion; on appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the decision giving the plaintiff leave to replead. The district court then granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment after concluding, among other things, that the plaintiff could not show that the SPCA defendants acted under color of state law when they arranged for the medical procedures on the dogs.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment, agreeing that no genuine issues of material fact remained on any of the plaintiff’s federal claims; however, the court’s reasons differed somewhat from those articulated by the district court. As a preliminary matter, the Second Circuit considered whether the SPCA and its employees/agents act under color of law for purposes 42 U.S.C. §1983 when they arrange to have surgery performed on seized pets against the owner’s wishes or without his/her knowledge. After a detailed analysis of the “state action” requirement under §1983, the court concluded, contrary to the findings of the district court, that the SPCA defendants were exercising “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State” when they operated on the plaintiff’s dogs. 2012 WL 3518527, at *11 (quoting Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U.S. 245, 352 (1974)). However, the court went on to find that “[t]o the extent that the SPCA defendants are subject to the obligations imposed on state actors, they also share the immunities the law extends to those actors.” Id. at *13. In reaching its decision, the court concluded that the due process right asserted by the plaintiff – not to have her dogs sterilized without some form of due process – was not clearly established and so could not serve as the basis for depriving the defendants of their qualified immunity under §1983. The court went on to reject the plaintiff’s remaining federal claims after finding that the search of her home and subsequent arrest was supported by probable cause.

The case is an important victory for the SPCA because it makes clear that SPCA employees are entitled to qualified immunity for acts during animal cruelty investigations. In addition, the Court upheld the SPCA’s spaying and neutering of the seized animals and the provision of medical care to the animals.