Every dog has his day, and it looks as if Harlee the black Pomeranian will have his day in court.
The Spokane County family that lost Harlee in summer 2007 can sue to get him back from the man who adopted the little dog from SpokAnimal C.A.R.E., the Washington state Court of Appeals ruled this week.
The lawsuit filed last year by Marcia Graham, Harlee’s owner since he was a whelp, had been summarily dismissed by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Gregory Sypolt. That decision left the dog with his new owner, James Notti, of Spokane.
The Appeals Court sent the case back to the lower court to decide whether SpokAnimal had the authority to adopt Harlee out to Notti, and the answer depends on a major bone of contention: whether Harlee was found in the city of Spokane or in Spokane County.
“It’s the decision we thought should have been made in the first place, and we are going forward with it,” said Richard Graham, Marcia’s husband.
A message left at Notti’s residence was not returned Wednesday.
Harlee’s tale began July 17, 2007, when he wandered away from the Grahams’ home near Marshall in rural Spokane County. The Grahams posted signs, contacted animal shelters, and placed ads in the Cheney Free Press and on Web sites, including the one run by SpokAnimal.
Less than two weeks after he disappeared, Harlee was found by Jolee Wilke, a county resident who turned the dog over to SpokAnimal on July 29. The nonprofit agency is contracted by Spokane to deal with strays found within city limits. Another agency, SCRAPS, takes animals found in the county.
On the day SpokAnimal accepted Harlee, Notti requested the dog. After the requisite 72-hour waiting period, he adopted the Pomeranian on Aug 1.
About a month later, the Grahams learned their dog’s fate from Wilke’s daughter, a classmate of the Grahams’ daughter. The family went to SpokAnimal, where officials contacted Notti. But he would not give up his new pet.
However, Richard Graham had caught a glimpse of Harlee’s new owner’s name on a SpokAnimal computer screen, and the family went looking for Harlee. The Grahams found the dog at Notti’s home, but Notti was unmoved, even by the Grahams’ offer to buy him a replacement Pomeranian.
So the Grahams sued, claiming through their attorneys at Gonzaga University Legal Assistance that Notti did not obtain a valid title to Harlee because SpokAnimal has no authority to adopt out a dog found outside the city.
Notti, through his attorney Karen Schweigert, of Arlington, Wash., argued that “an animal shelter’s possessory interest in a pet trumps a private citizen’s ownership interest” and that SpokAnimal acted appropriately.
Spokane municipal code does not address whether where an animal is found affects the city’s authority to dispose of it. However, the Appeals Court said, “it does matter where Harlee was found.”
While Wilke says she found Harlee in Spokane County, SpokAnimal employees say she told them she found him just inside city limits, according to court records.
Gonzaga law professor George Critchlow, who represents the Grahams through University Legal Assistance, said the Grahams case will define the rights of animal owners and the limits of animal shelters’ jurisdiction.
The Superior Court’s dismissal of the case was inappropriate, Critchlow said, because there was a question of fact: Where was the dog found?
“We say this dog was found in the county. If that is correct, SpokAnimal had no authority to adopt this dog out,” Critchlow said. If Notti can prove the dog was found in the city, then he wins.
The Appeals Court ruling leaves it up to the lower court to clean up Harlee’s mess.
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