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Dog Shelter Operator|Can Press On With Suit

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - An animal control officer and five others allegedly involved in the arrest of a dog rehabilitator operating out of Michael Vick's former dogfighting arena must face conspiracy claims filed against them, a federal judge ruled.

Animal rights activist Tamira Thayne, founder of the Dogs Deserve Better Inc., was a vocal critic of the County, Va. Animal Control Department, and its alleged slow response to accusations that Vick, then the star quarterback of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, was involved in an illegal interstate dog fighting ring.

Federal prosecutors ultimately charged Vick with promoting, funding and facilitating a dog fighting ring on his Virginia property, and of hanging and drowning dogs that did not perform well.

Vick, who played with the New York Jets last season and is currently a free agent, pleaded guilty to felony charges in August 2007, and served 21 months in prison followed by two months in home confinement.

Thayne bought the property in 2011, and began operating an animal shelter on the site that summer. Several months later, on Nov. 6, 2011. a young female black and white pit bull named Jada was brought to the shelter, showing obvious signs of abuse and neglect, including but not limited to significant scarring, court documents say.

Thayne says she committed herself to caring for Jada and in time, restored both her health and well-being.

In a complaint filed in the Richmond, Va. Federal Court, Thayne says she was therefore shocked when county officials issued a warrant for her arrest on Aug. 27, 2012, alleging she had committed a Class 1 misdemeanor of animal cruelty.

A search warrant issued at the same time called for the seizure of "Tasers and mace used on the animals as well as anything used as cruel treatment on the animals," the complaint says. By the end of the day, Thayne says she was also charged with an additional misdemeanor of failing to provide adequate space for animals in her care.

Thayne was placed under arrest, and Jada was seized.

The animal advocate says the distressing situation was exacerbated by the presence of news helicopters that circled and hovered over the property while the search and her arrest occurred.

"Based on information and belief, the Defendants informed the media or otherwise were involved in having the helicopters arrive at that time," the complaint said.

Thayne insisted the seizure of Jada was illegal under Virginia law, and that while in the county's care, the dog was kept in a kennel that contained "multiple piles of uncleaned feces, and no visible food or water."

In her lawsuit against Animal Control Officer Tracy Terry, Surry County, and the Surry County Board of Supervisors, Thayne said although the charges against her were eventually dropped, she and her shelter suffered "tremendous damage" due to the defendants' unsupported allegations and the extensive media coverage of her arrest.

This damage included a precipitous drop in donations for her organization as well as in bookings for personal appearances on behalf of Dogs Deserve Better.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and U.S. District Judge John Gibney Jr. dismissed many of Thayne's claims, holding that Surrey County enjoyed sovereign immunity from state law tort claims arising from the actions of its employees. As a result, duplicative claims -- those against the county board and Terry in her official capacity -- must also be dismissed, Gibney ruled.

Even if sovereign immunity didn't trump her claims against the government defendants, Thayne's complaint, "fails to identify ... any policy or custom adopted by the County or its Board which acted to deprive DDB or Thayne of their constitutional rights," Gibney wrote.

But the judge took an entirely different view when it came to Thayne's common law and statutory conspiracy claims, and allowed those to go forward.

"The plaintiffs state that Terry and one or more of the Doe defendants acted in concert to bring unfounded criminal accusations against her for the purpose of damaging her reputation as an animal rights advocate and DDB's reputation as a legitimate animal rehabilitation center," the judge wrote. "They allege that Thayne's vocal criticism of Surry County's and Terry's investigation and d prosecution of Michael Vick provided the motivation for singling out Thayne and DDB for retaliation.

He continued: "The plaintiffs further allege that at least one conspirator notified the media to ensure that reporters and helicopters would cover the search of DDB and Thayne's arrest. This Broad and dramatic exposure would maximize the negative impact of Thayne and DDB."

Gibney found these allegations exceeded what he called "the 'mere conclusory language'" that would justify dismissal of remaining claims at this stage of litigation.

"The plaintiffs allege facts sufficient to allow reasonable discovery to proceed concerning the identity of these Doe defendants. Should discovery reveal the identity of any of these [Doe] defendants, any claims against them will be subject to the relevant rules governing the joinder of parties. Any Doe defendant not identified after reasonable discovery will be dismissed from the action," Gibney wrote.

"For these reasons, the Court denies the defendants' motions to dismiss the claims of common law and statutory conspiracy against Terry in her personal capacity and all claims against the Doe defendants," he said.


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