(CN) - Pennsylvania officials need not face claims that they caused the overheating-related death of a costly dog whose owner was found guilty of animal cruelty, a federal judge ruled.
Nationally known dog breeder Miriam Winkler owned and operated a kennel for bichon frises and Neapolitan mastiffs called Judge's Choice from 2006 to 2010, according to the decision.
Winkler, who allegedly sold her dogs around the world for $2,500 each, claims that for years, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement found "minimal, if any, issues in need of attention" during required annual inspections of her kennel.
That changed, however, when three dog wardens - Orlando Aguirre, Diane Buhl and Kathy Andrews - "suddenly" ordered Winkler on April 27, 2010, to surrender custody of her dogs or be criminally charged, according to the ruling.
Winkler insists that the dogs were "healthy," but that she agreed to give up 20 bichon frises and one border collie - worth $50,000 altogether - by signing "a document with blanks not filled in," as she was "unaware of her legal rights" and feared the wardens' alleged threats.
The dog breeder also says Aguirre sexually harassed her with unwanted touching and advances many times prior to June 2010, but that she did not report him for fear of retaliation.
Aguirre allegedly told Winkler that she was not "playing ball" and "would be sorry."
Though her complaint states that the wardens turned the dogs over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it is unclear whether she tried to regain the canines.
Winkler claims that Aguirre and Buhl returned to her kennel in her absence and without a warrant on June 4, 2010, and let a Neapolitan mastiff escape from the air-conditioned space.
The dog ultimately died from overexposure to extreme heat, according to the complaint.
The wardens and Pennsylvania State Police soon filed charges, including 21 counts of animal cruelty, under the state Dog Law and Crimes Code against Winkler.
A magisterial district judge found Winkler guilty of unlawful operation of kennel without a license, making false statements/concealing facts, and three cruelty-to-animals charges on Sept. 9, 2010. Winkler was sentenced to pay $200 for each conviction.
The dog breeder appealed, claiming that the wardens committed perjury at trial by submitting photos of other kennels as evidence. Winkler later agreed to reinstate all but the cruelty charges, for which she entered an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program.
In an 11-count federal complaint against the wardens and state, Winkler asserts claims of trespass, conversion and civil conspiracy, as well as state and federal constitutional violations. She seeks compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys' fees, costs, and interest.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel dismissed the complaint on Jan. 16.
"It is well-established that Section 1983 does not provide for damages claims against state agencies or state officials in their official capacities," he wrote.
Winkler's claims for unreasonable seizure of personal property and deprivation of property interest without due process under the Fourth and 14th Amendments also failed.
"Here, success in Ms. Winkler's claims of constitutional violations against the defendants would necessarily imply the invalidity of Ms. Winkler's convictions in the state court," Stengel wrote. "Ms. Winkler cannot demonstrate that her state court convictions have been invalidated."
Sovereign immunity shields the wardens from the state-law tort claims, the ruling states.
"Because the defendants' conduct alleged in the complaint involves damages caused to Ms. Winkler's dogs, and not by her dogs, the exception to sovereign immunity does not apply," Stengel wrote.
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