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Jackson v. Delaware Office of Animal Welfare

Superior Court of Delaware

September 14, 2017

LORETTA JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DELAWARE OFFICE OF ANIMAL WELFARE and JOSEPH BARLA, Defendants.

          Submitted: June 5, 2017

         Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. GRANTED.

Charles E. Butler Judge.

         This 14th day of September, 2017, upon consideration of the Motion to Dismiss filed by Loretta Jackson ("Plaintiff), it appears to the Court that:

         1. According to the pro se Amended Complaint, on or about June 22, 2016, Defendant Joseph Barla, an employee of the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare, arrived at Plaintiffs home to perform a home inspection.[1] Plaintiff claims that it was during this home inspection that Defendant Barla tied a rope around the neck of Plaintiffs pet Rottweiler and then tied that rope to a storm drain.

         2. Exactly what happened after that is not detailed. It is said only that "[d]uring this time the treasured pet of the Plaintiff suffered irreparable injuries from Defendant Barla, causing Plaintiffs pet to become deceased due to the negligent behavior of Defendant Barla."[2]

         3. While one might read the Amended Complaint to mean that Barla's actions caused the animal's demise, elsewhere in the Amended Complaint, we are told that the animal was examined at the ASPCA and had broken toe nails and was bleeding from the mouth. This all suggests that the pet survived, at least as far as the ASPCA. In response to the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff claims that Officer Barla committed "murder" of the dog and elsewhere that he "strangled" it, but again, details are lacking.

         4. Plaintiff claims that Defendant "failed to exercise the reasonable care that a reasonable person would have in his handling of the animal, " and that this negligent behavior caused the dog's death. In other words, classic allegations of ordinary negligence. And importantly for our purposes, Plaintiff alleges that all of Officer Barla's actions were taken pursuant to his duties as an animal control officer for the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare.

         5. Plaintiff also claims that her 81 -year-old mother suffered a heart attack and died from the stress of losing the dog. Plaintiff finally claims that as a result of losing her dog, she herself now suffers from insomnia, depression, and has lost trust and respect for animal control officers. For all of these injuries, Plaintiff seeks compensation from Officer Barla and the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare.

         6. The State has moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint, arguing that Officer Barla and the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare are both immune from suit.

         7. In reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must determine whether the claimant "may recover under any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible of proof." When applying this standard, the Court will accept as true all non-conclusory, well-pled allegations. In addition, any reasonable factual inferences are made in favor of the non-moving party.[3]

         8. In the absence of the State's consent, the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars suit against the State.[4] This doctrine applies not only to the State itself, but also to its agencies and public officials sued in their official capacity.[5] In the absence of insurance coverage or a legislative act, the doctrine acts as an absolute bar to suit.

         9. The Delaware Office of Animal Welfare is a subdivision of the Department of Health and Social Services and is an agency of the state. It operates within a detailed statutory milieu.[6] Animal Control Officers likewise are state employees, trained pursuant to statute.[7] They are immune from suit unless some exception waives the immunity.

         10. The route away from the bar of sovereign immunity in cases involving government actors who act within the scope of their authority is quite limited. For these purposes, the only limitation on sovereign immunity that could conceivably be met here is that "[t]he act or ...


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