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Paw & Order: One Columbia law firm is making sure pets have a voice

By Lane Page

9:44 PM EDT, August 24, 2012

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The Thienel Law Firm of Columbia has four associates. Managing member Stephen C. Thienel, however, has two more of his own -- chocolate Labs Mocha and Star, who spend the day greeting clients or curled up in his office, where they could be poster pups representing the portion of the firm’s practice involving animal law.

“Animal law incorporates a range of different areas of the law, such as criminal, zoning, contracts, property rights, animal welfare and more,” says Rebekah Damen Lusk, who does the majority of the firm’s animal casework.

Primarily a business and litigation attorney, she does a range of animal-related legal activity -- horse boarding and veterinary practice issues, disputes over dog aggression, ownership and euthanasia, pet custody after a divorce, constitutional rights of an owner when an animal is shot … but not the constitutional rights of an animal -- that’s a different field entirely.

“I own and love animals,” says Lusk, proprietor with husband Steve Bright of a farm where she can ride and work with her thoroughbreds and warmbloods on performance eventing and dressage, as well as boarding horses for others.

“When I graduated from law school I knew I wanted it to be part of my practice,” she says. And for the past two years it has been a great deal of her work indeed.

The case that has absorbed so much of Lusk’s  time is described on Thienel’s website (www.thienel-law.com) as follows:

“Rebekah Lusk of Thienel Law Firm and Cary Hansel of Joseph, Greenwald and Laake represented a Frederick couple whose dog had been shot and home illegally entered by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department. The couple was awarded a $620,000 judgment by a Frederick County jury for the unlawful and unconstitutional shooting of their female chocolate Lab and the unlawful entry of their home. The couple’s dog, Brandi, was shot early on a Saturday morning, while on her own property, by a Frederick County deputy. The deputies were present on the property to serve a Writ of Body Attachment on the couple’s son.

After the owners left to rush Brandi to the veterinarian for medical care, the Deputies entered their home without legal authority or permission. The jury found that the couple’s common law and constitutional rights were violated and returned a judgment in their favor against both deputies.” 

When the award was made last April, “it was the first such case in Maryland where a significant verdict was won,” Lusk says.

With judges and juries it just depends, she continues. Some judges (most of her other animal cases have been before them only) view animals as simply property. But this case was very emotional. When they saw the deputies’ own dashcam video showing Brandi being shot within seven seconds, jury members cried, she recalls. 

“In Maryland we don’t have damages for emotional distress or hurt to the dog,” says Lusk. Further, under state law you can’t get more than $7,500 for shooting a dog, adds Thienel. The rest of the jury award was for illegally entering the house, a violation of the owners’ rights.

(The case is probably not over. With posttrial motions and an appeal likely, it’ll probably take another two or three years to resolve, Lusk thinks.)

But there are rewards other than financial ones. That tremendous amount of work for the past two years will make a difference for implementation of law enforcement training regarding animals, she believes. “We feel we are changing the way police think before shooting.” 

That impact could be national, according to Thienel. The firm has since been contacted by others from around the country because, as Lusk notes, shooting of animals by law enforcement officers “happens all the time.”

Still, “we wouldn’t have taken the case if it were a pit bull,” says Thienel.

The recent Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, making anyone in custody of one automatically liable, “has a lot of negative implications for owners, landlords and shelters,” Lusk says.

The amount of animal work the firm does now is variable but amounts to perhaps 10 percent.  As for competition, the Maryland State Bar Association ListServe includes 30 to 50 attorneys whose practices include some amount of animal work, says Lusk, and she has seen about a dozen across the country who do so exclusively. Getting even more specific, there are three or four other equine attorneys in the state.

The firm’s founder and managing member, Stephen Thienel, brings a business and economics background -- 24 years, in fact coming to the law later in life.

And while “my dogs are a part of everything I do,” he says Lusk was the one who pushed him in the animal law direction. In 2009, the Maryland legislature helped by enabling the creation of trusts for pets.
How these trusts actually work out in practice, Thienel doesn’t yet know. They’ve only been in existence here three years, and he hasn’t had one go to probate yet.

It’s all part of estate planning, which is one of his specialties. However, most of the pet-related work the firm does involves neighborhood issues, representing homeowner associations regarding what each one may permit or exclude  -- any pets at all, what size and breed, how many, fencing, what kind and how high, keeping pets chained, breeding them and so on.

Howard County offers a particularly good field for this, as the percentage of Columbia residences in homeowner association property is very high, Thienel says.

But some of the cases most interesting to him involve the big and still-growing area of postdivorce litigation over pet custody and visitation.

In addition to exercising visitation rights as a means to distress the ex, “it typically doesn’t work out well, because one or both parties don’t want to see the other person to drop off or pick up the pet -- ‘I just got a divorce from that woman, and I never want to look at her again!’” he says. “Or sometimes it just means a place to push the dog while going on a trip.”

No such worries for Star and Mocha.