On September 18, 2023, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Five, issued a decision reversing a trial court's dismissal of a case brought by two animal rescue groups challenging actions by the County of Los Angeles in euthanizing dogs rather than turning them over to animal rescue groups. Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center v. County of Los Angeles, No. B318954 (Cal. App. Sept. 18, 2023). The matter was remanded for further proceedings.
Plaintiffs brought their action under the Hayden Act, which is codified in various California Civil, Penal and Food and Agricultural Code provisions. The Act makes it the policy of the state that animals should not be euthanized if they are adoptable or treatable. "Adoptable" generally means that the animal manifests "no sign of a behavioral or temperamental defect that could pose a health or safety risk or otherwise make the animal unsuitable for placement as a pet." A "treatable" animal is one that is not adoptable but could become adoptable "with reasonable efforts." The Act further provides that animals "irremediably suffering from a serious illness or severe injury" shall not be held for owner redemption or adoption. However, before an animal is euthanized it shall be released to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit if requested by the nonprofit before the scheduled euthanasia.
Plaintiffs, two 501(c)(3) organizations operating no-kill shelters, argued that LA County routinely fails to perform its "ministerial duty" of releasing dogs to any 501(c)(3) without further qualification unless the animal is suffering from an irremediable serious illness or injury. The County argued that it had no mandatory duty to release an animal to any organization claiming to be a 501(c)(3) and that it had discretion in determining whether or not it would release a given animal based on whether the animal has behavioral problems or is otherwise unsuitable for adoption.
On whether the County's duty to release was ministerial or discretionary, the court sided with the plaintiffs:
[The statute] does not confer the County discretion to withhold a dog on the basis that the County has deemed it to have "behavioral problems" or has determined that it is unadoptable and untreatable. Rather [the statute] imposes a mandatory duty on the County to release such animals upon request from a qualified organization. [Slip op. at 15.]
The court limited its holding to the facts before it (i.e., to dogs) and did not reach the issue whether this interpretation applied to other shelter animals (cats, rabbits and other identified species) or to owner relinquished animals.
However, on the second issue the court sided with the County, holding that the County did have the discretion to approve the 501(c)(3) that is to receive the animal:
.Given the breadth of the County's duty to release
dog," granting the County the discretion to ensure that the entity to whom a dog is released appropriately qualifies as an animal rescue or adoption organization facilitates the safe and appropriate placement of dogs. We conclude that the Legislature intended to confer discretion on the County to qualify organizations as animal rescue or adoption organizations through means that the County determines are appropriate. [Slip op. at 17.]
So, if a qualified rescue organization in Los Angeles comes calling for a dog scheduled for euthanasia, the County cannot simply euthanize the animal but must give it up. This decision is probably a boost for no-kill shelters and other organizations that do their best to reduce the incidence of pet euthanasia through re-homing efforts.
Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.