Attorney speaks out on Mayor’s testimony in pet adoption lawsuit

Published 6:16 pm Friday, March 23, 2018

After members of the Carter County Commission discussed County Mayor Leon Humphrey’s involvement in a civil lawsuit in Virginia regarding the seizure of two dogs by the local animal shelter, an attorney involved in the proceedings reached out to share more details about the case.

When the County Commission met on March 19, the focus of the meeting shifted several times to Humphrey’s involvement in the Virginia Court Case. At the heart of the lawsuit, Kimberly Buckles alleges that her two Shih-Tzu dogs were illegally seized by the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter and sold to another organization which eventually adopted the two dogs out to someone.

Humphrey said Buckles came to him seeking help. After investigating the matter, Humphrey alleges he found evidence that animal trafficking was occurring at the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter under a previous director.

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After Humphrey’s testimony in Wise County Virginia District Court on February 22, an attorney representing Sandy Blanton, the woman in Virginia who adopted the two Shih-Tzu dogs, contacted Carter County and formally requested copies of records referenced by Humphrey during his testimony.

“Mayor Humphrey testified under oath that the two canines did not show any signs of neglect and that the animal control seizure conducted by the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter was ‘illegal,’” said attorney David Bary in the letter.

That records request was part of Monday’s discussion by the County Commission as some commissioners expressed concern that Humphrey’s involvement in the case and his testimony had opened the door for the county to be sued.

“I’m not going to do anything that would put this county at risk,” Humphrey told members of the Commission on Monday. “I never have.”

On Wednesday, Bary contacted the Elizabethton Star regarding the ongoing court case in Virginia and the discussion by the Carter County Commission on Monday evening.

“There were concerns raised by the Commission regarding the county’s potential liability exposure in this matter. These concerns are valid and duly warranted,” Bary said. “Mayor Humphrey testified under oath on February 22, 2018, that ECCAS illegally seized and forged intake documents regarding the rescue of these neglected canines on or about May 27, 2016.”

“While my client adamantly disagrees with these statements, Mayor Humphrey’s testimony is a clear admission that Carter County engaged in negligent and criminal activity,” Bary continued. “These statements open the door for multiple cause of actions ranging from intentional infliction of emotional distress to breach of contract.”

While the court on Feb. 22 sided with Buckles and ordered the dogs to be returned to her, Bary said he and his client have appealed that ruling, which also put a halt on the order to turn over the dogs while the case is reviewed.

The case is now scheduled for a de novo review on April 19 in Wise County Circuit Court. A de novo review, sometimes called the “legal error” standard, allows the appeals court to substitute its own judgment about whether or not the lower court correctly applied the law in a case. The proceeding on April 19 will be a de novo bench trial, according to Bary, and all of the issues, evidence, and testimony will be reviewed as if it is the first hearing of the case.

The rules of evidence in the lower court are not as stringent as they are in the appellate court, Bary said, adding he believes his client will prevail in the de novo review.

Bary said he has received the documents as well as video and audio recordings he requested from Carter County and will be reviewing those as he prepares for the upcoming proceeding in the case and items from those records may be entered as evidence in the new hearing.

So far in his review, Bary said he does not believe there is any evidence to indicate that the animals were illegally seized or trafficked.

Bary said his client’s main concern in the matter is fighting to keep possession of her two “beloved pets” which they contend she legally adopted in July 2016.

“While my client weighs her options, she would like for the kind people of Carter County to understand that she has cared for and nurtured these two canines since July 2016,” Bary said. “She maintains that she acted in good faith while completing an adoption agreement, remitting an adoption fee and taking possession of two rescued canines.”

“During this time, she has formed a strong emotional attachment to her ‘babies’. Removing these two pets from her care would have a detrimental effect on my client and her cherished family pets,” Bary continued. “Moreover, the attempt by Mayor Humphrey to retroactively strip adopted pet owners of their rights will result in a chilling effect on pet adoptions, increase the number of animals euthanized, and expose Carter County to a swarm of legal actions.”

Bary said he feels Humphrey opened up Carter County to the possibility of lawsuits related to shelter adoptions. “If not from us, from someone,” he said.