Shelter retaliation against volunteers is illegal, unconstitutional

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend a conference on “shelter litigation,” put on by the UCLA Animal Law program. One of the guest speakers for the night was Sheldon Eisenberg, the attorney who successfully sued the L.A. County DACC (Department of Animal Care and Control), on behalf of Cathy Nguyen and Rebecca Arvizu.

I wanted to write an article not only detailing what I learned, but to reinforce what I already knew–and to make unequivocally clear to the shelters (Carson) who troll my website and who fear-monger their own staff and volunteers, that what they are doing is wrong and illegal. They already know this, as they have been sued and were resoundingly defeated in a court of law. But based on their own actions, it seems as though they care not what the results of this lawsuit was, and that they would instead rather carry on the same way as before, as to insinuate that they think no one else will stand up and sue again.

Let it be stated clearly: Section 1983 (42 U.S.C § 1983) applies to anyone who is acting as authority under state law–be it Government, municipalities, police, and certainly city & county animal shelters.

The 1st amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives each and every citizen the freedom of speech, the right to complain, the right to petition and redress i.e. demand abuses are addressed. This right can in no way be trampled on by anyone, let alone by a bureaucrat within a tax-payer funded animal shelter. If a shelter manager claims otherwise, they are LYING. If a “volunteer agreement contract” makes you state that you “shall not talk,” it has no justification under the law to make such a claim. This is a breach of a person’s most fundamental and important right, and if shelter managers are still parading around as if they hold this power, they just haven’t had their bluff called in a court of law. They have no power or claim over this right, end of story, period.

As far as going about “showing an actual injury” if you are considering filing a lawsuit… The “injury” is the loss of a governmental benefit or privilege. This absolutely WILL hold up in court. The fundamental point is that there shouldn’t be any retaliation going on, not arguing over the semantics of what defines an “injury.” People are entitled to the benefit of being a volunteer.

This is the problem… Good, honest and compassionate people are working as shelter volunteers all across this country. That is a fact! Not only that, but many of them enter as staff with those same exact noble personality traits and with totally genuine intentions. It’s only when they get thrown into the belly of the beast, seeing and experiencing the draconian bureaucracy first hand, that 1 of 2 things normally happens: Either 1.) They (knowingly or unknowingly) allow this daily depressing reality to shift and change them as human beings, extinguishing the good qualities that they once held dear and high. They become disengaged and beaten down, desensitized to the realities and then before they know it they are just passively accepting them. Or 2.) They remain kind and good, honest individuals who try to go above and beyond what their job descriptions demand–but find themselves boxed in or constantly shut down by a superior. This then multiplies in scope, as instances pile up and situations are witnessed–and when a volunteer or staff member wants to, or feels it necessary to speak out, they are forced to weigh the real possibility of losing their job. This is done through obvious insinuation, outright and blatant threats, and most notably the given “illusion” by a manager or superior that they actually hold this ability. These people are then, as staff, faced with losing their source of income–and as volunteers, faced with losing their access to the animals that they love and want to help. They wrestle with this, and 99x out of 100 choose to do nothing, due to the fear of retaliation.

Cathy, on the other hand, didn’t let the fear of retaliation deter her from speaking out and voicing her many concerns. This promptly resulted in Marcia Mayeda, in concert with the Carson shelter and on behalf of the entire L.A. County DACC, revoking her pull rights as a rescue partner. This illegal action was swiftly reversed with a lawsuit… So please, let Cathy serve as an example, and as an inspiration to all others going forward.

The tricky part to all of this involves finding an attorney who will actually take cases like these on, and do them for free, as most of us cannot afford lengthy representation. Under 42 U.S.C § 1988 there is a set precedent for awarding attorney’s fees to the prevailing party, so this will be 1 likely route of repayment for concerned attorneys. Another is California Code of Civil Procedure 1021.5. Many attorneys will consider doing pro bono work if they are passionate about the cause, it’s just a matter of finding them…

Lastly, Eisenberg went over what litigation can and cannot do…

What litigation can do?
~Address clear violations (ongoing and systematic conduct)
~Generate attention/publicity « Important, as public and media scrutiny puts pressure on officials to actually do their jobs. This may also develop an incentive to correct any problems, as to avoid further scrutiny.

What litigation cannot do?
~Change shelter management
~Implement effective outside supervision (3rd party monitors)*
~Create No Kill shelters
*This comes into question though, as Carson and the L.A. County DAAC have already been sued–and with that, have agreed upon a settlement with conditions. If they are found to be “not complying” with the demanded changes attached to the prior settlement, that then creates a situation where outside supervision could be argued as necessary… All of this remains to be seen.

My final message to the people whose voices are being suppressed, whose concerns are being silenced, and whose intentions are being met with retaliatory threats: You need to know your rights. You need to take the necessary action if it is required. This is the only way that things will change… Come together, talk amongst each other, do not be bullied into going along with something that you know is not right. This is how oppression stays in place, when good people do nothing.

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.