In violation of federal civil rights laws, Person County Animal Services director Ron Shaw has banned a longtime rescuer for speaking publicly about pound staff’s refusal to let her obtain vet care for a puppy who later died in the pound.
Rhonda Beach, director of Chances Angel Rescue and Education and former president of the Animal Protection Society of Person County, has been involved with the Person County pound since 2008. Between her time with APS and CARE, Ms. Beach says she has been responsible for saving 912 pets from PCAS. “To be accurate and to only include what CARE has pulled from PCAS, we have rescued to date 1022 animals and out of those numbers, 726 animals were pulled from PCAS by Chances Angel Rescue,” she said.
On Aug. 21, 2013, Ms. Beach sent a text and a photo of a puppy to a PCAS staff member asking for the pup’s age, weight, and hold date. The staffer replied late the next morning, providing info including that the pup was very malnourished and thin and his mandatory hold was up on Aug. 23.
Ms. Beach responded immediately, asking if she could pick up the pup early and have him serve out his hold period with her, which is permitted by state law. (§ 130A-192.) “My intent was to go get him immediately and take to my vet for an evaluation,” Beach said. “Extremely malnourished dogs should receive immediate vet care and so I offered to pick him up and get him to the vet right away.”
The employee texted back, “He is doing okay. I have been feeding him some can food.” Ms. Beach then asked if the staffer could vaccinate the pup, and the staffer said she would vaccinate him on Aug. 23.
The staffer later texted that the pup could be picked up after closing (4 p.m.) on Aug. 22 because his hold period would technically be up then, but Ms. Beach was unable to get to the shelter at that time. “I was available and ready to go get him immediately at 11:45 am on August 22, but was denied because his hold date was not met,” Ms. Beach said.
Ms. Beach said she tried to contact PCAS staff around 8 am on Aug. 23 to see if they would let her pick up the pup at 8 am instead of waiting until the 10 a.m. opening time. The rescue coordinator texted Ms. Beach at 10 am to tell her that the puppy had died.
Later that morning, Ms. Beach posted a photo of the pup with a caption describing the issue on her Facebook page:
This poor puppy died in the shelter last night. I had tagged him for rescue and he was there waiting his mandatory 72 hour hold period. I ask the shelter could I get him early and so he could get medical attention since he was extremely malnourished. I offered to hold him at my house for the remaining of the mandatory 72 hour hold period after he received medical attention and was denied. So this puppy died sometime last night, in the shelter, alone, on a concrete floor. I am so heart broken for this baby. This is one of the reasons I don’t work with Person County Shelter as much as I used to… This baby needed help at a critical time. RIP sweet boy. I am so sorry your people failed you.
The next day, Shaw sent Ms. Beach the following email:
Per PC Animal Services Ordinance Appendix B, I am suspending your privileges of pulling animals from our Shelter as of Friday, August 23, 2013.
It has come to my attention of the Facebook posting made by you and comments you made on a picture that are not productive of the over all mission of saving animals and promoting a positive relationship between Animal Services and your rescue group.
I have already notified the Animal Advisory Committee of the suspension and they will be scheduling a meeting in the next two weeks (per County Ordinance Appendix B). You will be notified of the meeting date as soon as it is scheduled.
Ron W. Shaw
Person County Animal Services
2103 Chub Lake Road
Roxboro, NC 2757
Such an action–retaliation against a volunteer or rescuer who exercises her free speech rights–is in violation of federal law. In the words of attorney Sheldon Eisenberg, who successfully represented rescuers who sued Los Angeles County after being banned for speaking out about animal abuse at the county’s shelters:
There can be no dispute that complaining about abuses or violations of law at shelters is a constitutionally protected right. A rescuer not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against abuses and violations of law committed by a governmental entity, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified. This includes the right to threaten to sue or to actually file suit against the shelter. (Section 1983 To The Rescue.)
42 USC Chapter 21, Subchapter I § 1983 states: “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…”
In essence, local laws and policies that deprive someone of rights and privileges, such as the recent amendment to the Person County Animal Services Ordinance that threatens shelter volunteers and rescuers with loss of access to the public shelter in retaliation for exercising their free speech, are in violation of US civil rights laws.
In recent years, the courts have said that people have a right to file a claim under Section 1983 when state or municipal governments take action designed to scare or prevent them from exercising their First Amendment rights, or punish them for doing so. The plaintiff must show that all of a few specific conditions, or legal “elements”, exist: The plaintiff’s conduct must be protected by the Constitution, this conduct must have been a “substantial” or “motivating” factor in the defendants’ decision to take action, and the plaintiff must have suffered actual injury.
There can be no doubt that the suspension of Ms. Beach’s right to save animals from the Person County pound meets the conditions necessary for a lawsuit:
- Ms. Beach’s Facebook post is Constitutionally protected free speech;
- Ron Shaw explicitly said in his email that his decision to retaliate against Ms. Beach and deprive her of her rights was a result of her Facebook post; and
- Ms. Beach has suffered the damage of losing the benefit and privilege of rescuing pets from the Person County pound.
It is important to emphasize that the loss of a common benefit counts as injury; a rescuer need not establish a legal right to adopt animals or take advantage of any other benefits afforded by a shelter. As the Supreme Court has stated, a government entity “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests—especially, his interest in freedom of speech.” Therefore, it should be enough to show, for example, that a person has been deprived of his or her ability to volunteer at, or to adopt animals from, a shelter
The very existence of the new language in the Person County ordinance threatening to revoke access for advocates who speak publicly is in itself in violation of US law. In Eisenberg’s words, “Since the whole point of a Section 1983 retaliation claim is to prevent the ‘chilling’ (discouragement) of constitutionally protected rights, it seems clear enough that a threat of retaliation for exercising those rights, which is specifically designed to obstruct the exercise of those rights, should be sufficient to satisfy the actual injury element of a Section 1983 claim.”
In addition, there is also provision under US statutes (42 USC § 1988 – Proceedings in vindication of civil rights) for the prevailing party to recover all attorney fees in a suit filed in vindication of civil rights.
A letter was sent on Ms. Beach’s behalf to Person County Manager Heidi York informing her that banning Ms. Beach is illegal, and Ms. York replied that she passed it along to legal counsel, who is currently “out of the country,” and that she does not have the authority to intervene in the issue.
You can read more about Ms. Beach and her efforts to reform the Person County Pound in Kim Kavin’s book Little Boy Blue.