Dog Leasers Get Bit ... and Other Legal News You May Have Missed

By Richard Dahl on April 19, 2022

Before you sign a contract to buy a dog, make sure you read the fine print.

That is the takeaway from an April 13 settlement announcement by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. A California-based financial services company agreed to pay $930,000 to resolve allegations that it was illegally leasing dogs in Massachusetts.

If you were unaware that dog leasing exists, neither did some of the victims in the Bay State. One of them, Catalina Ortiz-Sierra, fell behind on loan payments after losing her job in 2019 and a collection agent threatened to take away her dog, Milo.

The Boston resident was shocked to learn that she didn't own Milo, a Shih Tzu-poodle mix she'd obtained at a pet store shortly before losing her job. When she defaulted on the lease, collectors demanded $13,000 — three times more than the price of the dog — or Milo would be taken away.

The problem for the lender, Monterey Financial Services LLC, is that Massachusetts is one of eight states since 2017 to ban pet leasing. Under the terms of the settlement, Monterey must waive outstanding debt and transfer full ownership of the dogs to hundreds of Massachusetts residents.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals describes pet leasing as "predatory arrangements that are typically padded with large fees and heavy default penalties."

Pet leases are still legal in 42 states. So if you visit a pet store and find a cute puppy too irresistible to ignore, make sure that when you sign on the dotted line you really are its owner.

Man Wins Jury Award for Unwanted Birthday Party

A jury awarded a Kentucky man $450,000 for lost wages and emotional distress in a strange case involving an unwanted office birthday party that his work colleagues threw for him in September 2019.

Ten months after starting work at Gravity Diagnostics, a medical laboratory in Covington, Kentucky, Kevin Berling asked the office manager not to throw a birthday party for him because he had an anxiety disorder.

However, other employees planned the party when the office manager was away. When the lunchtime event happened, Berling retreated to his car.

The next day, he had a panic attack when two supervisors confronted him about his behavior the previous day. Three days later, the company fired him on the grounds that he was "violent" in that meeting and posed a threat to the safety of his co-workers.

One month later, Berling sued the company for disability discrimination. On March 31, a Kenton County Circuit Court jury awarded him $150,000 in lost wages and $300,000 for emotional distress.

The company says it plans to appeal.

The U.S. Justice Department agreed to return $1.1 million in cash it seized in California from an armored car company used by legal marijuana dispensaries.

The series of events leading to the agreement began in May 2021 in Kansas. A county sheriff seized a cash-transport van containing $166,000 from a Kansas City medical marijuana dispensary, which is legal under Missouri law.

Three months later, the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City brought a civil forfeiture action against the company, Empyreal Logistics, contending that the seized cash was generated by sales that violate the federal Controlled Substances Act. (Although marijuana is legal in many states, it is illegal under federal law.)

Similar incidents involving Empyreal then played out in California, where feds seized $1.1 million generated by state-licensed cannabis businesses.

Empyreal responded with a federal lawsuit contending that law enforcement officials in California and Kansas acted in concert with the Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct "pretextual stops" of their vehicles. Empyreal argues that the sheriffs' motivation in turning over the cash is that under the federal "equitable sharing" program as much as 80% of forfeited money could come back to local sheriffs.

Empyreal agreed to drop its claims against California in exchange for the return of the cash.

The settlement in California may influence how the Kansas case plays out. In March, Empyreal and the U.S. Attorney's office in Kansas City agreed to put the case on hold for 60 days while the parties explore mediation and "continue to work toward a resolution."

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