A proposed class action claims the City of Auburn, Washington and the Auburn Valley Humane Society have charged increasingly excessive and unlawful fees to pet owners whose animals were impounded at the shelter more than once.
The plaintiff, whose dog escaped and was impounded a total of five times at the shelter, says the animal was “adopted” by a third party without her consent or legal authorization after she could not pay AVHS’s “astronomical” fees for the return of her dog.
The 25-page lawsuit accuses AVHS of acting outside of its legal authority to extort money from pet owners while Auburn has either condoned the unlawful rates or “shirked its duty to the citizens of Auburn” by failing to review the fees and improperly delegating authority to a private nonprofit whose officers are not elected by the public.
The City of Auburn entered into an agreement with AVHS in 2011 for animal sheltering services, the case begins. According to the lawsuit, the agreement allowed the nonprofit to provide “sheltering, licensing, surrender, and adoption services only, not enforcement services in the form of field impoundment, civil infraction issuance, criminal citation issuance, or seizures.” Per the suit, no employee of AVHS was ever given a law enforcement commission nor authorized by the city to enforce Washington’s animal cruelty laws.
According to the case, AVHS was permitted to establish prices for its services that would be periodically reviewed by the city to ensure they were competitive with other animal shelters.
Since 2013, however, the defendants have charged citizens what the lawsuit alleges to be “escalating impound fees drastically out of proportion with reasonable, comparable rates.” The case claims the defendants have done so without lawful authority while demanding the right to liquidated damages and attorney’s fees should pet owners not comply with the terms of the shelter’s “Return to Owner/Claim Form.”
“No municipal code provision or ordinance ever permitted the City or AVHS to charge such sums as reflected for repeat impounds, nor demand liquidated damages or reasonable attorney’s fees as a condition of releasing an impounded animal, rendering same ultra vires, unconscionable, and illegal,” the complaint scathes.
The plaintiff says her dog Max, an emotional support animal, repeatedly escaped and was impounded at the animal shelter multiple times, for which she paid increasing impound fees that eventually skyrocketed to more than $800. On the first three visits to AVHS to claim her dog, the plaintiff was respectively charged $51 (which was voided), $77 plus $30 for a pet license, and $140, the lawsuit relays.
When Max was impounded a fourth time, the plaintiff was purportedly charged $385—representing $280 for a fourth-time impound fee plus various charges for deworming, flea, and rabies treatments and board for four days—but paid $120 at the time of his release and was forced to sign a promissory note stating she would pay $250 within the next two weeks, according to the case. The plaintiff failed to pay the $250, “nor did she have a legal obligation to do so” given the fee’s illegality, the suit says.
Upon the fifth and final time the plaintiff’s dog was impounded at AVHS, he was adopted out to a third party after the plaintiff could not pay the $852 charged by the shelter for his return, the lawsuit states. According to the suit, AVHS, and the City of Auburn by extension, had no legal authority to charge such excessive fees to the plaintiff or withhold and seize her property.
“The amounts extorted from [the plaintiff] by Defendants were not authorized by law,” the complaint reads. “When [the plaintiff] could not pay the demanded sum, Defendants illegally withheld Max, falsely claimed relinquishment, ineffectually asserted ownership, and then purported to ‘adopt’ him to a third party without any right, title, or legal interest.”
Per the case, the plaintiff was reunited with her dog nine months later after she hired an attorney to intervene but was never paid monetary damages for the time she was deprived of Max or the attorney’s fees she incurred to recover him.
“[The plaintiff] suffered severe emotional distress from the actions taken by Defendants, as well as loss of use of Max, who had an immense intrinsic value to [the plaintiff] and her children (but no fair market or replacement value), and other noneconomic damages,” the complaint contends.
Per the suit, the City of Auburn has “done nothing” to change the challenged fee schedule as of December 8, 2020.
Initially filed in King County, Washington Superior Court on December 10, 2020, the lawsuit was removed to the state’s Western District Court on January 8, 2021.
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