Judge schedules hearing on Sarasota County motion seeking dismissal of three counts in Petland lawsuit

Owners of Petland Sarasota franchise also named in federal lawsuit filed this summer by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, relating to Kennesaw, Ga., franchise

Judge Frederick P. Mercurio. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit Court website

Three weeks after mediation is to be held in the case, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Frederick Mercurio has set a hearing on Sarasota County’s motion for partial summary judgment in the lawsuit the owners of Petland Sarasota filed against the county last year.

The 30-minute session has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27, according to a notice filed on Sept. 14 in the Circuit Court.

It will focus on three counts of the Petland complaint that pertain to basic rights granted by the Florida Constitution. The county has pointed to case law in arguing for the dismissal of those counts, saying the County Commission was acting to protect the public in its 3-2 approval last year of the new law that prohibits retail sales of dog and cats.

In the meantime, Lamar Brad Parker Jr., one of the owners of the Petland Sarasota store, and the franchisee — BKG Pets — are continuing to fight the county’s efforts to compel the release of a number of documents relating to the store’s inventories and sales. The county also has asked the national Petland office to turn over “[a]ll documents received from franchises within the past three years reporting the size of inventories of cats or dogs in Petland stores in the United States,” which the county says it needs in its effort to defend the law the County Commission approved on Jan. 27, 2016.

On Sept. 20, Petland filed an objection to the county’s request for a copy of the franchise agreement for the Petland store in Kennesaw, Ga., as well as for all similar agreements Parker and BKG Pets have entered into within the past five years. Parker and his family own and manage that Georgia franchise, too, according to a document filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia that The Sarasota News Leader has reviewed.

When Parker appeared before the County Commission during its Jan. 27, 2016 public hearing on the proposed ordinance prohibiting retail sales of dogs and cats, he mentioned that he had been a breeder in Georgia for the previous seven years.

On July 7 — prior to the county’s latest request for materials from Petland USA — Assistant County Attorney David Pearce wrote in a motion that the county is seeking documents “relevant to [Parker’s and BKG Pets’] inventory, income, and expenses in order to determine: (1) whether the ordinance materially impairs obligations under the franchise agreement and lease; (2) whether the ordinance has resulted in a taking of Plaintiffs’ property, including its franchise agreement and lease [for the Sarasota store as alleged in the original complaint]; and (3) potential damages.”

A separate hearing has been set for 11 a.m. on Oct. 23 on Parker and BKG Pets’ objections to producing those documents.

Additionally, in late July, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleging that Petland USA has made victims of “a putative nationwide class of consumers [through] Petland’s predatory business practices of charging premium prices for puppies Petland has ‘guaranteed’ to be healthy — as certified by Petland’s veterinarians — when Petland knows full well it is selling puppies prone to illnesses and other defects, including ‘puppy-mill’ sourced puppies,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund website says.

Image from the Animal Legal Defense Fund website

The complaint also named two entities associated with the Kennesaw, Ga., Petland franchise as defendants: BKG Pets Inc. and Pets BKG.

Numerous members of the public who testified during the Jan. 27, 2016 Sarasota County Commission public hearing on the retail pet sales ban talked of their anguish as they saw puppies they had purchased from the Petland Sarasota store become seriously ill and, in a number of cases, die. Proponents of the ordinance said it would serve as a means of stopping “puppy mill” pets from being sold to the public.

“Puppy mill” is the term used to describe breeding operations that produce as many litters as possible without concern for the health and welfare of the breeding stock or the litters.

An August 2015 USDA report on Iowa breeder Steve Kruse included this image of a dog at his facility. A binder Lamar Brad Parker Jr. of Petland provided the County Commission in January 2016 showed that Parker had purchased animals from Kruse. Image from the USDA

During his testimony before the County Commission on Jan. 27, 2016, Lamar Brad Parker Jr. said he and his family bought animals only from breeders who pass inspections undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, advocates of the county law have pointed out that at least one of the breeders from whom Parker had purchased puppies — based on documentation Parker provided to the commission — had been cited for violations during a USDA inspection.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is a nonprofit whose “mission is to protect the lives and advance the interest of animals through the legal system,” its website says. It was founded in 1979 “by attorneys active in shaping the emerging field of animal law,” the website adds. The national headquarters is in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has a Platinum ranking from GuideStar, which is one of the most prominent entities that vets nonprofits in the United States.

Arguments over relevance of materials

Lamar Brad Parker Jr. is the owner of Petland Sarasota. File photo

Parker and BKG Pets filed their complaint against the county on Oct. 28 2016 and then amended it in early May to add a new count, alleging that the county law violates the Florida Antitrust Act of 1980. The county ordinance — which went into effect in late January of this year — allows “hobby breeders” to continue to sell purebred animals from their homes. The plaintiffs allege that the county not only has violated a number of their constitutional rights but that it also has created a monopoly for those people who breed limited numbers of purebred animals.

Assistant County Attorney Pearce has noted that the county has not begun enforcement of the law.

On Sept. 6, Pearce filed a Notice of Production of Non-Party in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, saying that within 15 days, if Petland USA, based in Chillicothe, Ohio, had not produced the inventories and franchise documents the county has been seeking — and no objections were received from any party in the case — the county would “apply to the Clerk of Court” for a subpoena directed to Petland USA for those documents.

In their Sept. 20 motion, Parker and BKG Pets object to the county’s request for all documents from the Petland store in Sarasota reporting on inventories of cats and dogs offered for sale in that store within the past three years, as well as the records from the Kennesaw, Ga., Petland store for the same period.

Parker and BKG Pets also argue that the Kennesaw, Ga., franchise agreement is “not relevant to the subject matter of the pending action,” nor is it reasonable to believe that the information sought would “lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” They apply the same argument about relevance in objecting to the release of the inventories from the Kennesaw, Ga., store.

They add that they object to turning over the inventories of the Sarasota store “to the extent that the documents may reveal confidential or trade secret information.”

On Sept. 13, the Sarasota County Commission held a closed meeting — allowed under the state’s Sunshine Law — to discuss the pending mediation in the case. That is set for 9 a.m. on Oct. 6 at the offices of the Kirk-Pinkerton law firm in Sarasota. Thomas D. Shults of that firm is representing Parker and BKG Pets in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court case.