More than two months ago, Pender County pound employee Darlene Clewis sent all of the pound’s volunteers a notice telling them they were not welcome at the shelter until further notice:
From: Darlene Clewis <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 5:14 PM
Subject: updated volunteer procedures
we are currently updating our volunteer procedures until this is done we ask that you be patient with us every one will be notified with the new volunteer sheet. no volunteers at the shelter until the new policy is in place.
Some believe this was done because Pender volunteers were telling other folks what sort of things went on that the pound, and apparently Clewis and former director Keith Ramsey* didn’t like that.
The new policy appears to be in place now, because the volunteers have all been invited back to the pound for a volunteer orientation, or re-education in the case of existing volunteers, this Saturday, February 16, at 11 am.
Would it be surprising if the re-education includes volunteers being made to sign an unconstitutional “confidentiality clause?” Maybe not. Directors and staff of high-kill pounds like Pender often prefer to intimidate volunteers into keeping their mouths shut than to be held accountable for dismal conditions, questionable practices and high kill rates.
Fortunately for animal advocates who want to improve conditions for and save the lives of pets in pounds, it is illegal to ban or retaliate against volunteers or rescuers who exercise their First Amendment rights by talking about what they see going on at the pound. A federal statute best known as “Section 1983,” has been successfully used by animal advocates whose ability to help or save shelter pets was restricted after they went public with their observations of shelter conditions and neglectful treatment.
In fact, the very existence of a mandatory “confidentiality” agreement could be considered a threat of retaliation against a volunteer or rescuer exercising his or her constitutionally protected rights. In the words of attorney Sheldon Eisenberg, (who successfully sued the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control in such a case):
A question may arise as to whether a volunteer or rescuer needs to wait for a government official to follow through on a threat to retaliate before filing a claim under Section 1983 or whether a threat of retaliation alone is sufficient to trigger one. For example, some volunteers have been told by officials that publicly speaking about a shelter will result in the volunteer being banned. 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. (From: Section 1983 To The Rescue)
There is also precedent under US statues for the prevailing party to recover all attorney fees in a suit filed in vindication of civil rights. This means that volunteers and rescuers, who often don’t have a lot of money to hire lawyers, may be able to find an attorney who would take such a case on contingency. For more about Section 1983 and its application to animal shelters, see Sheldon Eisenberg’s slide show.
The Pender County pound volunteer orientation is open to new and existing volunteers. The pound is located at 3280 New Savannah Rd. Burgaw, NC 28425. Phone: 910-259-1484.
*In January, the animal shelter was taken from under the control of the Pender County sheriff’s department and put under the county manager, so Ramsey, a sheriff’s lieutenant, is no longer director and Darlene Clewis (who was director before the sheriff took over the shelter) is back in that spot.