On May 12th Los Angeles residents had an opportunity to watch their tax dollars at work as Attorney Justin Sarno from the law firm of Carpenter, Rothrans & Dumont dove head first into the world of alternative facts. Sarno has been retained to defend his clients, the County of Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control (DACC) and Marcia Mayeda against a lawsuit brought by the family of Mrs. Pamela DeVitt, who was fatally mauled by a pack of Pit Bulls on May 9th of 2013.
The facts of the DeVitt case came to light after a DACC employee leaked computer printouts showing that the DACC believed the dogs were owned by Alex Jackson and had repeatedly failed to impound the dogs and had, following Mrs. DeVitt’s death, backdated records to cover up their inaction. The DACC’s printouts show that the dogs had previously attacked two men on horseback on January 21, 2013 and, in a separate incident on April 3rd, 2013 five dogs jumped over Jackson’s fence and attacked a woman on her horse. After more than two months of repeatedly failing to respond to complaints about these dogs, the DACC finally went out to the property and left a notice telling Jackson that they were looking for the dogs. On April 12th Mr. Jackson called Animal Control and denied that the dogs were his – claiming they were strays. The dogs were never picked up and 4 weeks later Mrs. DeVitt was dead.
At the time Los Angeles County Code Section 10:32.010 stated that the DACC shall impound any stray dogs whether these pets had a license or not. The law was very specific and left no discretion to the agency. Jackson had stated that the dogs were not his and the DACC was required to impound the dogs.
Four days after Mrs. DeVitt’s death, Mayeda made the following statement to the County Board of Supervisors:
“We received two reports about these dogs, one in January of this year and one in April of this year. We responded to the January report. We did not locate any of the dogs that had been reported. The owner was cited for violations of animal control ordinances regarding rabies vaccination, licensing, spay and neuter and microchip.”
Mayeda was never asked by the Board of Supervisors to explain how the DACC could issue tickets for these dogs if they were never seen. And a few weeks after the fatal DeVitt mauling the DACC’s lawyer, County Council Diane Regan, proposed that the word “shall” in County Code Section 10:32:010 be changed to “may”, thus modifying the law to give the DACC discretion as to whether they had to pick up sick, stray, etc …dogs.
At last week’s hearing Mr. Sarno took the position that the word “shall” did not imply a mandatory duty. Probably in the alternative facts world of the Sarno and the DACC, the 10 Commandments were options rather than duties. All those “thou shalt nots” are just a bunch of suggestions.
Mr. Sarno then argued that even if there was an obligation which the DACC had failed to fulfill, no legal recourse was available to the DeVitt plaintiffs because the harm suffered was not the harm the law was intended to prevent. In other words, the obligation to pick up stray, sick animals was not intended to protect members of the public from being attacked but was in fact intended to ensure the welfare of the animals. Perhaps Mr. Sarno did not have the benefit of reading any of his client’s numerous policy statements on “potentially dangerous” dogs, which statements firmly insist that it is the DACC’s right and duty to confiscate.
DeVitt vs. Los Angeles County and Marcia Mayeda being referred back to a lower court for a jury trial is not attractive to the County of Los Angeles for either from a financial or a public relations point of view especially for a government still reeling from the Sheriff Baca and Tanaka scandals. Who would a jury side with? The plaintiffs consist of Ms. DeVitt’s grieving family. Ms. DeVitt was jogging to get in shape so she could enjoy a healthy life of a grandmother. Her husband of 42 years was devastated. Her son, a highly decorated Green Beret was serving his country and her daughter’s child will never have the benefit of knowing her grandmother. The County and Marcia Mayeda aren’t quite so lovable – as the evidence is clear cut they conspired to obstruct justice. According to legal experts we have spoken with, a verdict in the neighborhood of thirty million dollars would not be surprising.
Although the case might be entertaining for those who enjoy stopping to look at train wrecks, we hope the County will not allow this sordid case to go to trial. Offering Ms. Mayeda’s resignation would be the best way for them to open negotiations.