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LaBeau v. Sorenson

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 27, 2019



          Nancy E. Brasel United States District Judge

         Valorie LaBeau, a dog breeder, brought this Section 1983 suit against Stearns County and its Deputy Sheriff Zach Sorenson stemming from the County's seizure of her golden retrievers in 2015. The Complaint alleges violations of LaBeau's Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, a conspiracy to violate those rights and her First Amendment right, a Monell claim, and various state law tort claims. Sorenson and the County jointly moved for summary judgment, arguing that all of LaBeau's claims are barred by some form of immunity. [ECF Nos. 27, 29.] This Court finds that the defendants are entitled to summary judgment because qualified immunity bars the Section 1983 claims against Deputy Sorenson, none of the Section 1983 claims against the County asserts a constitutional violation, and official immunity bars the state tort claims. Because the Court grants the motion for summary judgment, other pending motions-a Daubert Motion to Exclude Plaintiff's Experts [ECF No. 22] and a Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Expert Declarations [ECF No. 47]-are denied as moot.

         BACKGROUND [1]

         The basis of LaBeau's claims is that in November 2015, Deputy Sorenson led the County's efforts to seize twenty-three of her dogs because the County believed them to be in danger. On November 5, 2015, LaBeau's husband, David Hilliard, struck LaBeau and was arrested for domestic violence. [ECF No. 32-1 (“LaBeau Dep.”) at 35:15-36:2, 37:12-22.] While in custody, Hilliard told officers that the dogs on the property were not being cared for properly. [ECF No. 32-2 “Hilliard Dep.”, 19:1-21.] (He has since recanted the statement.) (Id. at 19:14-16.) After Hilliard's arrest, officers took Hilliard back to the property to collect his things. While there, the officers, including Sorenson, asked LaBeau if they could look around the property to see the dogs. (LaBeau Dep. at 40:7-41:10.) LaBeau refused. (Id. at 41:9-10.)

         The officers returned the next day with a search warrant, accompanied by Dr. Gene Boysen, who is a veterinarian contracted by the county. [ECF No. 31 ¶ 5.] After reviewing the property and the condition of the dogs, Dr. Boysen determined there was no imminent danger to the dogs, but he was nonetheless concerned about them due to some of the conditions he observed on the property. (Id.) LaBeau does not challenge this search. (LaBeau Dep. at 46:15-17.)

         The officers notified Lynden Township about the search and their findings. [ECF No. 32-4.] Based on the officers' findings, the township determined that LaBeau was violating her conditional use permit (“CUP”), a special zoning variance, and revoked the CUP on February 29, 2016. (Id.)

         After this first search and the revocation of the CUP, the Sheriff's Department continued to investigate the issue of possible animal abuse on LaBeau's property. In March 2016, it requested and received reports from one of LaBeau's veterinarians about two puppies that died. [ECF No. 30-1; LaBeau Dep. at 55:11-21.] Employees of the veterinary clinic also told the officers they thought LaBeau's last litter of puppies was too skinny. [ECF No. 30-1.]

         Based on the conditions observed during the execution of the November 2015 warrant and the veterinarian's report the following March, Deputy Sorenson applied and received a new search warrant on March 9, 2016. [ECF No. 31 ¶¶ 10-11.][2] He also filed for and received a separate search warrant to gather and test soil and feces samples from the property for parasites. [Id. ¶ 12.] Deputy Sorenson and Dr. Boysen executed this soil and feces warrant on March 11, 2016. (LaBeau Dep. at 56:20-57:4.) At that time, Deputy Sorenson asked LaBeau to fill up the water bowls in one of the pens holding over a dozen puppies; she did so, and he observed them swarming and drinking the water. (Id. at 89:6- 90:20, 106:21-107:12.) Dr. Boysen was also present, and both he and Deputy Sorenson believed the puppies' actions were due to dehydration. [ECF No. 30-2 at 4-5.] At that point, Deputy Sorenson asked Dr. Boysen if the puppies should be seized. (Id. at 59:23- 60:15.) Dr. Boysen stated that he did not believe seizure was justified. (Id.)

         That same day, after leaving the property, Dr. Boysen called the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and was informed that LaBeau had not followed up with recommendations he had made to her about the conditions on the property. [ECF No. 31 ¶¶ 17, 21-22; ECF No. 3-2 at 4-5.]. After hearing about LaBeau's failure to comply with his earlier recommendations, Dr. Boysen reconsidered, and determined that the dogs were in imminent danger and should be seized. [ECF No. 30-2 at 4-5.] Deputy Sorenson then filed another warrant for the seizure of the dogs, citing the lack of access to water. [ECF No. 30-2.]

         The warrant for seizure of the dogs included all the above information, even Dr. Boysen's change of mind. (Id.) It also stated Dr. Boysen's conclusion that the animals were in imminent danger because they had no access to water, and that Dr. Boysen believed LaBeau was in violation of Minnesota Statute section 364.39 subdivision 2. (Id.) Based on this information, a state court judge approved the warrant, and all the dogs on LaBeau's property were seized on March 11, 2016. [ECF No. 31 ¶¶ 21-22, 24, 27-28.] The entity assisting with the seizure was the Central Minnesota Animal Control Center (“CMACC”), acting under the supervision of the Sheriff's Department. (Id. ¶ 28; see LaBeau Dep. at 97:19-23.) CMACC is a private impound run by Lisa Tenter. [ECF No. 32- 3 at 12:24-13:17; LaBeau Dep. at 121:19-25.]

         At some point before March 16, 2016, LaBeau's lawyer wrote to the state court judge requesting a hearing on the seizure. The court denied the hearing. [ECF No. 43-2; ECF No. 43 ¶¶ 10-11.] The dogs were held at CMACC and returned to LaBeau on April 1, 2016, under an agreement that neither party admitted liability. [ECF No. 32-3 at 93:1- 4; ECF No. 30-6.] One of the dogs died before release, and one died a day after. (LaBeau Dep. at 119:2-12, 129:17-22.)

         On May 5, 2016, LaBeau was charged in state court with public nuisance, unlicensed breeder advertising animals for sale, and operating a commercial breeder without a license. [ECF No. 32-5.] LaBeau pled guilty to the first two counts, petty misdemeanors, in March 2017. (Id.)


         I. Summary Judgment Standard

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute of fact is “genuine” if a factfinder could reasonably determine the issue in the non-moving party's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A court considering a motion for summary judgment must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences supported by the evidence. B.M. ex rel. Miller v. S. Callaway Sch. Dist., 732 F.3d 882, 886 (8th Cir. 2013). However, the nonmoving party “may not rest upon allegations, but must produce probative evidence sufficient to demonstrate a genuine issue [of material fact] for trial.” Davenport v. Univ. of Ark. Bd. of Trustees, 553 F.3d 1110, 1113 (8th Cir. 2009). “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         II. Qualified Immunity ...

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