Judge upholds Palm Beach Gardens puppy mill ban; store shuts down

There will be no doggies for sale in any window of any store in Palm Beach Gardens.

A Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge in December threw out a lawsuit filed by a pet store challenging the city of Palm Beach Gardens’ right to ban the sale of dogs and cats at pet stores.

Once the ordinance was upheld, Palm Beach Gardens officials said, the city’s police department told the Palm Beach Puppies North store an arrest was imminent because the store was violating the city’s ordinance — which led the store to close within 24 hours.

The shutdown of a store in connection with a puppy mill ban violation is believed to be the first by any U.S. city.

City officials say the 2014 ban was created to stop the proliferation of puppy mills that sell pets through these stores. Animal rights proponents have long argued these large commercial breeders provide terrible living conditions for animals. Once purchased at pet stores, advocates charge that many of these animals suffer lifelong health problems and even die from their diseases. Their owners also shell out thousands of dollars in vet bills, they contend.

But one store, Palm Beach Puppies North, challenged the law. The store alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that the city violated the company’s constitutional right to conduct business.

In court papers, the store said it “does not purchase puppies from any source which is legally defined as a ‘puppy mill.’”

In a Dec. 17 order, Judge Meenu Sasser granted the city’s motion for summary judgment, effectively defeating the lawsuit filed by Palm Beach Puppies North, legally known as D&G Limited LLC. In her order, Sasser wrote that Palm Beach Gardens’ ordinance was enacted with the aim of reducing the cost of sheltering and euthanizing animals, as well as preventing animal cruelty.

Sasser affirmed the ordinance was enacted “in the best interest of the health, safety and welfare of animals and the public at large.”

Palm Beach Puppies, at 10965 N. Military Trail, closed Dec. 23 after it repeatedly failed to comply with the puppy sales ban and had received several orders from code enforcement notifying them of the violation, said R. Max Lohman, attorney for the city of Palm Beach Gardens.

“A city police officer visited the store and informed the manager that displaying and/or offering puppies for sale was a violation of the city’s ordinance, which also happens to constitute a criminal misdemeanor,”Lohman said. The store manager was given the opportunity to cease and desist the conduct within 24 hours or be subject to arrest, Lohman said.

“They chose to close the store rather than risk being arrested,” Lohman said.

The case might be a first, animal rights advocates said.

“I can’t think of any other situation in which a store was shut down due to failure to comply with the ban,” said Kathleen Summers, director of outreach and research with the Puppy Mills Campaign of the Human Society of the United States.

Sasser’s order came as a shock to Palm Beach Puppies owner Alan Garson, said his attorney, Alexander Vargas III of Boca Raton.

“He thinks it’s incredible that in Palm Beach Gardens, you can chose where to buy a gun but you can’t choose where to buy a dog,” Vargas said.

Palm Beach Puppies still has one other store, at 9858 Clint Moore Rd., in the Reserve Shopping Center in suburban Boca Raton.

City officials said Sasser’s ruling was not only a victory for Palm Beach Gardens, but also an affirmation of a growing movement in both state and federal courts to uphold similar bans by other municipalities.

“I want people to know about the ordinance so they can adopt it without being afraid,” Lohman said. “Even if cities have a pet store in their city, they can adopt the (ordinance) and not get sued. I really want dogs to be protected.”

Judges rarely grant summary judgments, and Palm Beach Puppies’ lawyers believed they had strong arguments to back their claims.

“We were surprised,” said Robert Sweetapple, another Garson attorney. “It’s unfortunate that a municipality closed a legitimate business based on concerns about dogs that are being provided by federally licensed and approved breeders.”

Sasser’s order has emboldened other cities considering similar ordinances. For instance, Delray Beach wanted to introduce a similar ban.

But it waited until Sasser ruled in the Palm Beach Gardens case before deciding to go forward, said Cary Glickstein, Delray Beach’s mayor.

Now, armed with Sasser’s order, the city will introduce the ordinance at a Feb. 2 city commission meeting. “We can take comfort in moving forward knowing that the courts are supportive,” Glickstein said.

The ordinance is similar to that of Palm Beach Gardens in that it bans the sale of dogs and cats, and allows a non-profit shelter or animal rescue to make these animals available for adoption at pet stores, said Delray Beach city attorney Noel Pfeffer.

Delray Beach has one store selling puppies, Waggs to Riches at 505 E Atlantic Ave. downtown.

Jupiter, North Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Wellington and Greenacres have banned the sale of cats and dogs by stores, but the bans are preemptive, meant to block stores from opening a business there.

Palm Beach Gardens enacted the ordinance on July 10, 2014. It went into effect on Jan. 6, 2015, giving pet stores six months to comply.

The ordinance passed after a presentation by Lohman showing horrific conditions at out-of-state breeding facilities. He said these facilities hide behind United States Department of Agriculture certifications that mislead consumers into thinking the dogs are bred under humane conditions. In fact, there’s little regulation, and dogs from these factories are raised in squalid conditions.

Palm Beach Gardens defined puppy mills as facilities where more then 15 puppies or more than 15 kittens are kept at a single time, among other factors.

At the time the ordinance was passed, two stores in town sold puppies: Palm Beach Puppies and BestPet, which closed in August 2014 for unrelated reasons. Palm Beach Puppies hired Sweetapple to sue Palm Beach Gardens.

The 2014 lawsuit said that Palm Beach Puppies does not purchase puppies from puppy mills, despite claims by animal rights activists that have protested the store since 2012.

The complaint also alleged the city unfairly allows non-profits to charge a fee to adopt out animals but does not allow the sale of animals by for-profit businesses. Palm Beach Puppies said this gives non-profits the ability to corner the market on the sale of dogs in the city.

Sweetapple previously failed to persuade a federal judge using that same argument.

The prior case involved the Maryeli’s Lovely Pets store in the city of Sunrise. In that case, a federal judge wrote that comparing a for-profit business to a not-for-profit rescue shelter “is like saying a homeless shelter is similarly situated to a luxury hotel because both provide rooms to sleep in.”

Although Palm Beach Puppies North lost its bid to overturn the ordinance, Sweetapple said his client is considering whether to seek financial redress from the city for the lost income of his business due to the shutdown.

Technically, Sasser’s ruling is not binding on other judges in Palm Beach County Circuit Court or other courts in Florida.

But Glickstein, who is a lawyer, and city attorney Lohman both said the ruling will be persuasive. Sasser is a respected jurist who took the time to craft a five-page order loaded with case law, they added.

There are about 110 ordinances across the country that prohibit pet stores from selling dogs and cats, said Humane Society spokeswoman Cheylin Parker. Legal challenges to these bans have failed nationwide.

Puppy mill bans “are a trend, and we expect that number to grow exponentially in the next year or so,” Parker said.

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