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SPCA 'Peace Officers' Subject to Civil Rights Claim

By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 10, 2013 3:55 PM

New York animal owners better treat those puppies, kitties, and horses right or else the animal po-po will come a knockin’ on your door.

SPCA “police” abuse is rightly the subject of a Section 1983 claim, which the Second Circuit in Kanciper v. Suffolk County SPCA states can be brought in federal court, even while parallel state tort actions are pending.

Horse Farm Under Siege

Mona Kanciper operates a horse farm on Long Island, New York, where she is president of a non-profit which rescues unwanted or abandoned horses. Her farm was the subject of investigation by the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), who in New York are oddly enough, granted peace officer status, allowing them to perform government empowered investigations and enforcement ability.

Kanciper alleges that the SPCA restrained her and searched her property for evidence of animal cruelty without an arrest warrant and questioned her without Miranda.

Claim Splitting Is for the Dogs

The animal cruelty charges against Kanciper amounted to nothing, and she showed the SPCA a horse of a more civil color and sued the organization under Section 1983. Her 1983 claim was dismissed by the district court under a theory of claim splitting, but the Second Circuit felt compelled to remind them what claim splitting is.

As a reminder, plaintiffs can maintain actions in both state and federal court with the same subject matter, so Kanciper isn't barred from pursuing her 1983 claim in federal court merely because of a pending tort claim in state court arising from the same set of facts.

Claim splitting, as the Kanciper Court explains, is applicable to parallel federal court actions not parallel state and federal claims.

Declaratory Judgment

Kanciper also wanted a declaratory judgment as to the New York state law which empowered her alleged SPCA harassers, which the district court dispatched as only seeking declaratory judgment.

The Supreme Court in Wilton v. Seven Falls opined that a federal court could stay a declaratory judgment action when parallel state court claims were pending, however, Kanciper had also asked for damages under her 1983 claim. The Second Circuit didn't touch the merits of either the declaratory judgment or 1983 claim, but both were remanded to the district court.

Bottom Line

Watch yourself in New York, where even the animal lovers are potential rights abusers; but feel free to make parallel claims in state and federal court.

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