The head of Michigan's Genesee County animal control department, Walt Rodabaugh, may have violated the civil rights of the shelter's volunteers when he disbanded the volunteer program after they complained to his superiors about a recent raid some claim was both unwarranted and bungled.
Apparently Rodabaugh has never read the First Amendment and didn't realize that citizens have the constitutionally guaranteed right to petition the government for redress of grievances, because he actually told reporters that volunteers complaining about the raid is the reason he was shutting down the program. From MILive:
Rodabaugh said he knows shelter volunteers complained about the raid to his bosses -- the county Board of Commissioners -- and said they should be more loyal to the organization they help by giving of their time."My thing is, if you're going to volunteer for an organization, you support that organization," he said. "You don't (fight) that group, you work with them."Rodabaugh told two volunteer groups Thursday that he was suspending a program in which members walk dogs and work with shelter animals.
Because of course, Rodabaugh being a big whiny baby trumps the volunteers' constitutional rights any day, right? Wrong. From attorney Sheldon Eisenberg's "Section 1983 to the Rescue," a discussion of how a federal civil rights statute protects volunteers at shelters from being banned from volunteering because they exercised their rights:
There can be no dispute that complaining about abuses or violations of law at shelters is a constitutionally protected right. A rescuer not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against abuses and violations of law committed by a governmental entity, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified. This includes the right to threaten to sue or to actually file suit against the shelter.
Government officials rarely admit that they have intentionally meted out punishment beyond the scope of their legal power; therefore, the law allows plaintiffs to use direct or circumstantial evidence to establish that punishing protected conduct was the government’s motive in an action such as suspending adoption rights. Circumstantial evidence may include showing that the rescuer’s privileges were withdrawn within a narrow time frame around the time he or she engaged in protected conduct, and that no other explanation or reason was given for the rescuer’s punishment.
The last element of the Section 1983 claim, actual injury, can be demonstrated merely by showing that the rescuer has suffered a loss of any governmental benefit or privilege. It is important to emphasize that the loss of a common benefit counts as injury; a rescuer need not establish a legal right to adopt animals or take advantage of any other benefits afforded by a shelter. As the Supreme Court has stated, a government entity “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests—especially, his interest in freedom of speech.” Therefore, it should be enough to show, for example, that a person has been deprived of his or her ability to volunteer at, or to adopt animals from, a shelter.
A question may arise as to whether a volunteer or rescuer needs to wait for a government official to follow through on a threat to retaliate before filing a claim under Section 1983 or whether a threat of retaliation alone is sufficient to trigger one. For example, some volunteers have been told by officials that publicly speaking about a shelter will result in the volunteer being banned. Since the whole point of a Section 1983 retaliation claim is to prevent the “chilling” (discouragement) of constitutionally protected rights, it seems clear enough that a threat of retaliation for exercising those rights, which is specifically designed to obstruct the exercise of those rights, should be sufficient to satisfy the actual injury element of a Section 1983 claim.
Ivory tower theory that has no chance of surviving in a court of law? Not hardly. From the No Kill Advocacy Center's Nathan Winograd:
In 2008, Los Angeles rescuers teamed up with the No Kill Advocacy Center to file a lawsuit which alleged that the civil rights of volunteers and rescuers were being violated as retaliation for going public with their observations of inhumane conditions and neglectful treatment at the shelter. The court agreed.
In applying a federal civil rights statute to this area, the court gave animal activists a powerful weapon to reform the nation’s broken animal shelter system. Volunteers and rescuers no longer have to choose between remaining silent about abuses or risk losing their ability to help some animals by volunteering or rescuing them from death row.
Eisenberg was the attorney who brought that lawsuit.
There will be a county Board of Commissioners' meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 9 AM at the Genesee County Administration Building at 1101 Beach Street in Flint, Michigan. More details, including directions, are here.
I'm going; if you're anywhere nearby, I hope you'll show up, too. You can also let the Board know your thoughts by faxing them at (810) 257-3008.