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Varner v. City of Mesa

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 20, 2015

Deborah Varner, et al., Plaintiffs,
City of Mesa, et al., Defendants.


DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.

Defendants Phillip Baxter, Mark Gonzales, and the City of Mesa have moved for summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs' claims. Doc. 40. Plaintiffs Deborah and Daniel Varner have moved for summary judgment on all but two of their claims. Doc. 44. The motions are fully briefed, and the Court heard oral arguments on February 17, 2015. For reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment and deny Plaintiffs' motion.

I. Background.

This case involves five dogs, two women, and a police officer. The women are Deborah Varner and Deanna Arroyo. For many years, Arroyo has been rescuing dogs and cats from shelters that intended to euthanize the animals. Docs. 41, ¶¶ 3-4; 45-1 at 163. As a part of this effort, Arroyo founded Ohana Animal Rescue. Doc. 45-1 at 163. Arroyo operated Ohana, which at the time was not a registered non-profit, with the help of the non-profit Feathers Foundation. Docs. 41, ¶¶ 3-4; 45-1 at 164. Deborah Varner also helped Arroyo, who is legally blind. Doc. 41, ¶ 5. Varner would drive Arroyo to animal shelters, help select dogs to rescue, and take certain dogs into her own home. Id., ¶¶ 5-6. Arroyo and Ohana did not pay Varner for her work and there was not a formal agreement between them. Id., ¶ 7; Doc. 41-9 at 4-8.

In 2012, Varner took five dogs - Lil Bit, Gidget, Charlie Brown, Sage, and Honey Boo Boo - into her home. Docs. 45, ¶ 110; 45-1 at 170. Arroyo claims, and Varner disputes, that Varner agreed to care for these dogs on behalf of Arroyo and Ohana. Doc. 45-1 at 170. Arroyo and Varner began to argue over who owned the dogs and who should have possession of them. See Doc. 41-2 at 10-15. Until Officer Baxter intervened, Varner had physical possession of the dogs. Doc. 45, ¶ 110.

On November 21, 2012, Arroyo contacted Officer Phillip Baxter and informed him that Varner had stolen her five dogs. Docs. 41-4, 41-5. Arroyo explained that Varner had agreed to foster dogs on behalf of Ohana Animal Rescue. Doc. 41-5 at 14-16. Arroyo claimed that Varner had picked up the dogs with the understanding that Varner would care for them on behalf of Ohana. Docs. 41-4 at 6-8; 41-5 at 16-19. Eventually, Arroyo told Baxter, the two women began to argue and Arroyo demanded the return of the five dogs. See Doc. 41-2 at 10-15. Arroyo showed Baxter several text messages between the women in which Arroyo consistently referred to the dogs as her dogs and demanded that Varner return them. Id. In the text messages, Varner refused to return the dogs and claimed that they belonged "to feathers and myself not you." Id. at 12. In one message, Varner stated that "you gave me these dogs and i [sic] never signed a foster agreement." Id. at 15.

Arroyo also showed Baxter documents from Maricopa County Animal Care and Control ("MCACC"). 41-2 at 21. These documents showed that as of November 17, 2012, the five dogs were registered under Arroyo's name. Doc. 41-2 at 21-23. They also showed that the dogs had been previously registered under the Feathers Foundation's name. Id. at 24-33. Later that day, and before he approached Varner, Baxter called MCACC and confirmed that the dogs belonged to Arroyo. Doc. 45-1 at 8.[1]

During Arroyo's interview with Baxter, Arroyo also told Baxter that Varner might use a particular statute as a defense. Doc. 41-5 at 46. This statute, A.R.S. § 11-1001(10), states: "In § 13-1208 and in this article, unless the context otherwise requires... Owner' means any person keeping an animal other than livestock for more than six consecutive days." At the time, Baxter did not know of or understand the statute. Docs. 41-5 at 46; 45-1 at 14.

Based on the information Arroyo had given him, and after talking with his supervisor, Baxter went to Varner's home. Doc. 41, ¶¶ 27-28. Accompanying him was Officer Mark Gonzales. Doc. 45, ¶ 49. They arrived on November 22, 2012, Thanksgiving Day, at 8:07 a.m. Doc. 42-4 at 3. Baxter informed Varner about Arroyo's accusations and told her: "I have to get you to turn the dogs over cause there is documentation that she owns the dogs, that they are licensed to her." Id. at 5. Varner claimed that Arroyo had faked the documentation, that the dogs had always been with Varner, and that the dogs belonged to the Feathers Foundation. Id. at 5-8. Varner also explained that registering a dog requires proof of vaccination and that Arroyo couldn't have vaccinated the dogs because she never possessed them. Id. at 6. During the conversation, Varner admitted that at least two of the dogs belonged to Arroyo. Id. at 11. Varner did not show the officers any papers to contradict the MCACC documents or support her claim of ownership. Docs. 41, ¶ 35; 48, ¶ 35.

Varner refused to return the dogs. As a result, Baxter told her she was under arrest for theft, handcuffed her, and placed her in his police car. Doc. 42-4 at 11-14. Baxter then called Arroyo and asked her to come and pick up the dogs. Id. at 14-15. After Arroyo had retrieved the dogs, Baxter released Varner with a citation for misdemeanor theft under A.R.S. § 13-1802(A)(1). Doc. 41-2 at 2. The theft charge was ultimately dismissed without court proceedings. Docs. 41, ¶ 52; 41-2 at 7.

II. Summary Judgment.

A party seeking summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, shows "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment is also appropriate against a party who "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit will preclude the entry of summary judgment, and the disputed evidence must be "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

III. Analysis.

Plaintiffs assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unreasonable arrest and unreasonable seizure, as well as state-law claims for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, conversion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, ...

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