A judge ruled against Madison-based Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers (SDWR) last week in a case brought against one of its puppy raisers.
The service dog organization, which is currently being sued by the Office of the Attorney General, filed a warrant in debt against puppy raiser and college student Megan Greene in January. The company alleged that Greene had violated her contract with the organization by refusing to return its dog, Star. Greene had been assigned Star in May 2017 and was to raise him in preparation for service dog training. Puppy raisers take care of a puppy, offering it basic obedience and house training, along with socialization, until it can enter the organization’s service dog training and is ultimately placed with a family in need. While being raised, the dogs remain the property of SDWR with all medical decisions approved by the organization.
SDWR attorney Glen Franklin Koontz alleged that Greene didn’t follow the contract she had signed, opting for medical procedures such as cataract surgery and neutering without permission of the organization. He said she also refused to give the dog back when asked. As a result, the organization sought the enforcement of a clause in the contract which committed the raiser to paying $25,000 if the dog was lost or injured.
Greene and her attorney Leila Higgins-Fleishman said it was in fact SDWR that didn’t follow the contract, which stipulated that puppy raisers would have training and support, as well as be given dog food if in college. Greene filed a counter suit against the company in April seeking to recoup her costs.
Fleishman said Greene, who volunteered for the organization to raise a dog for a child with autism, something her older sister has, had contacted SDWR with concerns about Star’s health and behavior, but received no support. Greene testified that Star was nervous, anxious, submissive and unable to be in public. She also said he wouldn’t wear a support dog vest. She said her last communication with the organization was in July 2017 and didn’t hear from them again until 13 months later when they wanted to setup a time to evaluate Star. Greene said she responded by asking to setup the visit at her home due to concerns about the dog’s well-being. She said there was no response. Greene estimated that she paid nearly $1,000 in dog food for Star, only ever receiving one bag from SDWR when the puppy was first dropped off and nearly $5,000 for vet expenses.
Greene said she never thought to return the dog when she was experiencing issues raising it. She said she wasn’t quitting and wanted to continue to try. Puppy raisers are required to pay a $250 penalty if a dog has to be rehomed to another raiser. Koontz offered to waive the fee in court if Greene were to return the dog. She declined.
SDWR Training Director Erin Gray, who was employed by the company in 2017, but not as the training director, testified that she had asked for the dog for evaluation. Accompanied by her service dog, she said she couldn’t testify to what evaluations the dog had previously had, but protocol would require a medical evaluation as well as temperament and general behavior evaluations before being placed with a raiser. Records produced at the trial only show the medical evaluation was done.
Gray testified that she was unsure of the actual price SDWR paid for Star since some of its dogs are donated and some are paid for. She said the value of the organization’s service dogs is approximately $49,000, but families pledge $25,000 to cover half of the costs of travel, training and raising the animal. She said dogs with sight problems like Star’s, who had a lens removed, wouldn’t be placed as a service dog, however she doesn’t know the extent of the issue since she was unable to evaluate the dog. Gray said eye evaluations can’t be done at a home and must be done in a vet setting with the proper equipment available.
Service Dogs of Virginia (SDV) Executive Director Peggy Law testified that many dogs aren’t suited to become service animals. She said sensitivity to wearing a vest isn’t a deal breaker, but barking, fear in public, raised hackles and avoidance as Greene characterized Star would be. She said it’s unlikely a dog with such behaviors would be able to be trained as a service animal. As for the value or price of a service animal, the court didn’t certify Law as an expert. However, she said SDV charges $1,000.
In his closing argument, Koontz said SDWR is the sole arbiter of Star’s health, but Greene decided she was. He said the contract states the company pays for pre-authorized vet costs and that Greene testified she didn’t seek pre-authorization. He said she didn’t attend training, perform bi-weekly check-ins and never had any intention of returning Star.
“I understand loving dogs,” he said. “I love dogs, but I don’t love them so much that I would keep someone else’s.
“Megan Greene made a decision that Star was going to be her dog and that’s that,” he added, asking the court to enforce the contract and the $25,000 fee.
Meanwhile, Fleishman said he client didn’t steal the dog and instead has a lawful lien on the dog. She said Greene entered the agreement thinking she would get a dog with a temperament suited to that of a service dog. She said the organization breeched its own contract by failing to provide training, food and pre-approved veterinarian expense reimbursements (Greene said she had gotten authorization for vaccines, but never received the funds).
“The only value applied to the dog came from Megan Greene’s care,” Fleishman said. “[SDWR] didn’t give the dog a chance to become a service dog.
“They are not entitled to $25,000,” she added. “This dog is not worth $25,000.”
Fleishman asked the judge to strike SDWR’s motions and award Greene the cost of vet expenses, food, boarding and attorney’s fees.
Madison County General District Court Judge Theresa Carter said in looking at the contract, it’s troubling to the court that SDWR has no evidence of training or anything to prove it upheld its end of the bargain. She also said there’s no evidence that Greene didn’t follow through. Carter said Greene testified that she wasn’t offered training and SDWR, which would have those records, didn’t provide anything to show if she did or didn’t. Carter also said the messages Greene received never asked for Star back, but rather asked to setup a time to evaluate the dog.
“There’s no affirmative statement to say ‘you must return this dog’,” Carter said. “The court needed to see that Greene refused to return the dog.”
Carter said the burden had not been met to prove a breech of contract, nullifying SDWR’s claim. As for the counter claim filed by Greene, Carter awarded her $962 to cover the cost of food and $3,000 to cover attorney fees. Vet expenses were not reimbursed since Greene did not obtain prior authorization as required in the contract.
Greene’s case is just the latest in a string of cases involving SDWR. In January, the organization settled a lawsuit with a Virginia Tech puppy raiser. The company sued Brianna Burch last July for the return of a Labrador retriever named Lesley. At one point, Burch’s family offered to pay the $25,000 the contract stated the dog was worth, but SDWR replied seeking $75,000. Both sides were said to be satisfied in the undisclosed settlement reached in January. Information about Lesley’s whereabouts was not released.
SDWR will be back in court again this week in its ongoing case with the Attorney General. Last year, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a civil suit against the company alleging it was charging for untrained dogs and violated rules for seeking contributions.