ATLANTA (CN) – Attorneys for one of the country's largest pet store chains asked an 11th Circuit panel Wednesday to reject a class action claiming the company knowingly sells sick dogs and cats to customers at inflated prices.
Rosalba Cisneros claims in a class-action complaint filed in Atlanta federal court that she bought a Shih Tzu puppy named Giant in December 2015 from Petland store in Kennesaw, Georgia, for $2,400. Despite Petland's alleged certification that Giant was healthy and had been inspected by a veterinarian, the puppy was diagnosed with parvovirus five days later.
After Petland told Cisneros to bring Giant to its recommended veterinarian so she could be reimbursed for the costs under a warranty, the vet allegedly provided no treatment to the dog and it died days later.
Cisneros sued Petland, its Kennesaw franchisees and a consultant company, alleging the pet store buys animals from puppy and kitten mills for $50 to $200 per animal and engages in a racketeering scheme predicated on mail and wire fraud to conceal the animals' poor health from customers.
The district court granted Petland's motion to dismiss the complaint in April 2018, ruling that Cisneros failed to adequately allege the existence of a racketeering enterprise and failed to show that Petland and its franchisees engaged in activity beyond "normal self-interested business behavior."
On Wednesday, attorneys representing Petland and Pawsitive Solutions Inc., which serves as Petland's customer service agent, roundly disputed Cisneros' claims and urged the three-judge panel to uphold the district court's dismissal.
"The district court correctly found Petland is not engaged in a nationwide criminal enterprise," attorney Fredric Bold, Jr. of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore said, adding that the complaint reflects nothing more than "wild speculation."
Bold added, "Ms. Cisneros says Petland Kennesaw served as a training ground [for fraud] but there is no evidence as to how Petland trained for a fraudulent scheme or anything other than how to sell more gerbils.”
Kelsey Eberly, staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, argued on behalf of Cisneros and asked the panel to reinstate the complaint. She said discovery would allow the putative class to demonstrate the extent to which Petland's franchisees were "corrupted."
"Petland uses Petland Kennesaw to train other franchisees. Petland also exercises strong control over its franchisees. It has strong control over the protocols for the sale of pets," Eberly said.
Cisneros' complaint alleges that Petland hires veterinarians to "rubber-stamp" certification documents for pets suffering from infectious diseases and other health issues. Petland allegedly pays the veterinarians a fixed rate in exchange for an agreement to certify that each animal is healthy and fit for sale.
Cisneros claims Petland was aware that the health certifications were "illusory" and knew that the animals' latent health problems would not be noticeable to customers until after they took the pets home.
But Bold told the panel Wednesday that Petland's assurance of animal health isn't meant to be a lifetime guarantee.
"The health certificate was the result of an exam, but no one can certify that a pet will be healthy for the rest of its life," he argued.
Attorney Michael Coleman Gretchen of Fellows LaBriola, also arguing on behalf of Petland, said that Cisneros' complaint would still fail to show the existence of a racketeering enterprise even if the veterinarian who saw Giant had engaged in misconduct.
"Cisneros did not allege that Petland was aware of the vet's conduct. We're left with the single sale of a single pet at a single location and [Cisneros] wanted to allege this was part of a nationwide scheme. [To] allege one act by one particular vet who said the pet would be fine, that's not enough for a RICO claim," Gretchen said, referring to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Bold also said that Cisneros was offered a refund after Giant's death but "declined so she could sue," prompting U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro to say she wondered about the "good faith" of Cisneros' complaint.
Ungaro, a George. H.W. Bush appointee who was sitting by designation from the Southern District of Florida, was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, a Donald Trump appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, a Bill Clinton appointee.
The panel did not indicate when they would reach a decision in the case.
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