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In The News

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Why Would a Family Have to Sue to Get Their Dog Back? Beware of Certain Vets

By Michael Nichols
Categories: Michael J. Nichols

Remember the story "101 Dalmations?" Yeah, me too. Cruella deVil, the wicked wealthy fur-wearing villain wanted to buy a litter of puppies to make fur coats out of them. The pooch parents and their owners had to go to great lengths to get the puppies back and along the way saved dozens of other pups from the evil antagonist.

So, imagine when a call comes in to our office from a father of a family of 3 young kids and a puppy named "Max." (I have to say it loud like the Grinch - it makes me smile) When calls come in to our office, the intake person sends the note around to the entire firm if it's a new potential case so that whoever is available can assess it and we can figure out how to respond. This call of course went firm-wide and for about. what seemed like 10 hours we talked about it by email. The basics were this:

"Potential client ______ says that a veterinarian won't return his dog, "Max" and won't even say where the dog is located. His kids are upset and wondering where the dog is. Dog was in an accident while they were away and grandma took dog to an emergency clinic. He sounded a little choked up at the end of the call." (way to tug at my heartstrings, Abby).

So I call the "P/C" and we talk it out. It's the end of the day on Tuesday, January 12, 2021. I am trying to wind up things and get things done to go skiing on Thursday and I have a status conference on a murder case in Mt. Pleasant that I need to be on top of and just lots of other stuff going on. I tell the dad "hey this is not what I do but I love dogs, I have dogs and kids and I know how attached kids get to the family animals. If you understand that I will have to learn on the fly I'll talk to Wendy about whether we can take your case.

We enter into a written fee agreement (always put your representation agreements in writing). I send the vet who we think has the dog a letter. Her name is Maria Illiopoulou of St. Francis Veterinary Clinic in Okemos. Standard practice in a situation like this is "I represent this person. Please contact me by 5pm (reasonable date by which to respond) or we will be left with no option but to pursue all legal remedies." In this case, I added a clause about going to the veterinary board.

Fast forward to Saturday morning. We are in Bellaire at Shanty Creek and I wake up and realized that I missed a call and had a voicemail. It is a lawyer on behalf of Maria. Keep in mind cell service up there is not great so I have to step out and go to high ground near a ski lift to talk.

This lawyer is on the phone with me, voice raised, telling me how this case is going to go because "I litigate these all over the state." She is some sort of Animal Attorney. I guess if dui lawyers exist, animal lawyers exist. I say "cool; here is another case for you to litigate in good ol' Ingham County. Your client has my client's dog. Give it back." She claims that "your client's family orally relinquished the dog. There's been a relinquishment here." This is where I believe and I learned a long time ago from lawyers smarter than me: keep it simple - ask the other side on what legal authority there client is claiming to operate. That is what I did. She keeps going back to oral relinquishment.

Is oral relinquishment of a pet a thing? Remember where I told you "I gotta' learn this on the fly?" So, I go do something novel: I research the law. In my condo. On a Saturday. With a beer (a Bell's not a Short's - that was a fail in Bellaire). We know from 1L law school that pets - no matter how valuable - are personal property. Don't believe me? There is a case right on point: Koester v VCA Animal Hospital, 244 Mich App 173 (2000). I found a statute, too, MCL 333.18838. Of course! Vets are covered by the Public Health Code. It makes perfect sense.

MCL 333.18838 basically says that a vet has the right to abandon, forfeit or consider an animal relinquished but has to go through a process. 2 letters within 5 days of each other sent by certified mail to the owner. Not only do I have a paw to stand on but I have actually a pretty good case. The reason is this - but first:

The clinic where Max was taken by grandma (remember - grandma was taking care of Max while Max's family took a weekend to go to a water park) is a key player here. That clinic is the Greater Lansing Veterinary Clinic in Williamston, owned by Dr. Laurie Nelms. (I know she's a doctor because she insisted that I call her "Dr." when I finally got her on the phone). I really do not know what they did wrong other than being sloppy and too quick on the trigger, because they dumped Max with "Dr. Maria" without anything in writing and without even talking to the actual owner of Max. This is crazy, right? We have to be able to clear this up without a lawsuit.

That Saturday morning, Max's dad, my client, goes to Meridian Township PD and then meets officer Jeff Adams at Maria's house. She claims that Max is at GLVC and all dad has to do is pay the bill and talk to her lawyer (the smack-talker who litigates these "all over the state"). He gets that lawyer on the phone and she says "it's not your dog anymore. You've got a lawyer. Don't ever call me again. Talk to your lawyer." Click.

Time for the sound effect of that buzzer when a contestant gets it wrong on a game show. eeeeeeeHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! Max is not there at GLVC and GLVC staff will only say that they know nothing. GLVC is like Sgt. Schultz from Hogan's Heroes without the like-ability. This Saturday is starting to suck and all I wanted to do was make a call, clear up the confusion and get my guy's family their puppy and then get on a ski hill. Did I say Max is 6 months old and really cute?

So I start drafting a complaint. I get pictures of the kids with Max; the invoice for the diagnostic fee that grandma paid to GLVC and break out the statute. I want to be ready to file the next business day. I need to try to make sure I have circuit court jurisdiction so that I can get an injunction. I do not know that Max is worth $25,000.00 but I do know if I plead this the correct way, I can get what we call "equitable relief." This is important because otherwise, a judge in a civil case can only order money damages unless you have a dispute that energizes the court's equitable authority to order people to do things or to not do things.

We get it filed on Tuesday afternoon. This is the tricky part - getting an immediate order or getting a judge to even review it right away on an ex parte (without all parties) basis when the courthouse is literally closed. I make phone calls, send emails, get frustrated. Cindy my assistant is ready to kill me with all this stuff that is stuff that we almost never do and we are trying to do it immediately.

We get Judge Stokes. I call her assistant and ask her if I can "email" a judge's copy of our verified complaint a request for a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order). I copy the other lawyer when I email the pleadings. Other lawyer responds calling our request outrageous and citing this verbal relinquishment stuff.

Judge issues the TRO and sets a hearing for Friday, January 22, 2021 at 10am. The defendants have to tell me by 5pm Wednesday where Max is, with whom he is and that person's address and phone number. Finally, I get some answers. The Order is a huge step for us. Thank you, judge.

I find out that Max is not with Maria nor is he with GLVC. He is with a 3rd party in Mason. I slap on her a subpoena Wednesday night for the hearing on Friday (thanks Parker Myles - good hustle). I get her on the phone on Thursday. This is where it really gets angering.

Two types of personalities reveal themselves in this story: a category of animal lovers who thinks no one else in the world should own a nice pet unless they are in their same class of folks who believe in treating dogs and cats as first class royalty of the household. The other personality category is the young, condescending professional. Dr. Laurie Nelms (Langlois) finally called me back on Tuesday after I sent a clerk to her clinic to try to find Max (that was one of Marquette's favorite sons - my clerk Adam Skendzel). She could not have been more condescending or stand-offish. She has no explanation for the lack of any paper trail and acts like a witness on the stand who wants to embarrass the lawyer "is that a question?" She will not even give me the name of her lawyer so I can talk with that person.

Cutting to the chase: we finally get Max back after the hearing on Friday. The other lawyer and I came to a settlement thanks to the leverage that we had from Judge Stokes' Order. The deal is that we dismiss our case against Dr. Maria Illiopoulou as long as Max is back at my office by 3pm on Friday the 22nd. I know what was going on here because it was made clear during settlement that what Dr. Maria really wanted was Max to be hers. Or, she was going to hold him ransom for more money. Yet, she never even had emergency surgery performed on the little guy's jaw during the week and a half that she was hiding him from us. What is not clear to me is whether she bought Max from GLVC or paid a $700.00 vet bill for a few hours of care. The only paper trail that exists is a payment by her of $700.00 to GLVC Saturday night, January 9th.

I also dismissed the case against Dr. Nelms and GLVC. I just do not think that even though they were sloppy and REALLY need to work on their bedside manner, that we have enough to pursue a lawsuit. At least more investigation is necessary. This cost my clients a lot of money. Lawyers are supposed to reduce our fees when we are handling a case and spending time to learn areas of the law that we do not otherwise know but are specific to that type of case. I learned a lot during this case and I was just really grateful that I got to enjoy this moment:

***blogpost reviewed by and approved by clients: a/k/a Max's family.

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Peer Recognition

Mike Nichols is a national leader in drunk driving defense. He is a member of the Forensic Committee and Michigan delegate to the National College for DUI Defense. He is also a Sustaining Member of the College. Nichols is also a founding member of the Michigan Association of OWI Attorneys; a member of the American Chemical Society; an associate member of he American Academy of Forensic Science, Adjunct Professor of Forensic Evidence in Criminal Law and OWI Law and Practice at Cooley Law School. He is also author of the West OWI Practice book and several chapters in other books on science and the law.

Mike Nichols is recognized by his peers in Michigan as a “SuperLawyer” in DUI/Criminal Defense. Nichols has also been asked to speak at conferences by groups such as the NCDD; Various Bar Associations in other states.