7th Circuit tosses animal cruelty case for lack of jurisdiction

A case alleging state and private actors conspired to give false claims of animal neglect about two Washington County residents’ livestock was dismissed by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The health of several horses, goats and a donkey living on a Washington County hobby farm owned by Jamie and Sandra Swartz was determined to be in “immediate jeopardy” after an Indiana State Board of Animal Health veterinarian reported a significant decline in the animals’ welfare.

Jodi Lovejoy conducted four separate assessments of the animals between May 2013 and June 2014 after a local animal control officer asked for her help in evaluating a thin horse on the Swartzes’ property. The Swartzes, who owned the livestock, were deemed by Lovejoy unlikely to be able or willing to adequately care for the animals. A Washington County Superior Court judge found there was probable cause to believe animal neglect or abandonment was occurring and therefore entered an order to seize the animals.

Three counts of animal cruelty were charged against the Swartzes, who were ordered to reimburse Uplands Peak Sanctuary and Heartland Equine Rescue $928 for the care of the animals following their seizure from the property. The state deferred prosecuting the Swartzes as part of a pretrial diversion agreement, in which the defendants agreed to pay pretrial diversion fees, not commit or attempt to commit any crimes, report to the prosecutor’s office as directed and follow the court’s order regarding reimbursing Heartland for the care of the animals.

The Swartzes sued in federal court, alleging the state and private defendants conspired to deprive them of their property. U.S. Southern District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt dismissed the private defendants and later entered summary judgment in favor of the state defendants. However, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated in Jamie Swartz v. Heartland Equine Rescue, 18-3260, on the finding that the Swartzes’ alleged conspiracy is the type of claim routinely dismissed under Rooker-Feldman.

The 7th Circuit noted that the ex parte nature of the initial probable cause hearing did not prevent the application of Rooker-Feldman because the Swartzes were provided an effective opportunity to litigate the probable cause issue by contesting the state’s motion for authority to permanently place the livestock. Likewise, the Swartzes could have filed motions for reconsideration or to alert the court to new evidence or used any other method by which litigants in Indiana may place arguments on the record, the 7th Circuit stated.

“Third, the Swartzes failed to appeal the state trial court’s orders in the state appellate court, which would have constituted another reasonable opportunity to litigate whether their animals should have been seized,” Circuit Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the panel. “… In sum, this case should have been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine at its outset.”

The 7th Circuit therefore remanded the case for dismissal due to a lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction, finding the Swartzes’ claims to be inextricably intertwined with state court judgments.

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