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A conversion is either the unlawful appropriation of the property to the party's own use and beneficial enjoyment, or in exercising dominion over it in exclusion and defiance of the owner's right, or in withholding possession from the owner under a claim of title inconsistent with his title.
After receiving complaints from neighbors, ACHS's humane officer Paul Meacham began to investigate an elderly mare named Paka's health and the adequacy of her care. On several occasions in late July 2000, Meacham went by the Hegartys' pasture to assess the horse's condition. Seeing no apparent signs that Paka was receiving food or water, on August 16, 2000, Meacham contacted the Hegartys to discuss the issue. Meacham conveyed his concerns about Paka's health to Suzanne Hegarty and suggested corrective actions. Suzanne Hegarty responded that she adequately fed and provided for her horses and that they received veterinary care. Meacham told Suzanne Hegarty that he would be sending a veterinarian to check Paka. She advised Meacham not to return to her property. Later that day, Meacham called the ACHS veterinarian Dr. Hunt and asked him to go to the Hegartys' property and assess Paka's health. The next day, Dr. Hunt sent ACHS a report stating that, in his opinion, Paka was in an emaciated condition and was either sick, had poor teeth, or was receiving an inadequate diet. Meacham then contacted State's Attorney John Quinn to discuss the case and Paka's potential removal. Attorney Quinn advised ACHS to move forward using the procedure outlined in Vermont's animal cruelty statutes. On August 18, 2000, Meacham went to the Hegartys' home and seized Paka. The horse received immediate veterinary care and treatment while in ACHS's custody. Attorney Quinn later advised ACHS to return Paka to the Hegartys. Paka was returned on approximately August 30, 2000, twelve days after the horse was seized.
That same day, the Hegartys filed a complaint in Addison Superior Court alleging that ACHS unlawfully removed their "geriatric mare" and asserting claims for conversion and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After initial discovery, ACHS moved for summary judgment on grounds that it was authorized to seize Paka pursuant to Vermont's animal cruelty statutes. The Hegartys opposed the motion, arguing that the material facts supported their conversion claim and that the pertinent portions of the animal cruelty statutes were unconstitutional under both the federal and state constitutions. The trial court granted ACHS's summary judgment motion on grounds that because ACHS had "a good faith belief that the horse was in distress," the seizure was lawful. The court also held that the Hegartys' property right in "twelve days' possession of an old, blind, sick horse" was de minimis and thus did not trigger due process protection.
Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment because the material facts support the Hegartys’ conversion claim?
The uncontroverted facts evidence the following. Meacham made numerous trips to Paka's pasture to evaluate her health and care and observed what he determined was inadequate compliance with feeding and shelter requirements. He then contacted the Hegartys to discuss rectifying the problem. They denied there was a problem and advised Meacham not to return to their property. Meacham then went beyond the statutory requirements and employed a licensed veterinarian to assess the horse's health. Once the veterinarian confirmed Paka's deteriorating condition, Meacham went even one step further and contacted the state's attorney to discuss his authority to seize the animal. He then seized the animal and immediately took Paka to a licensed veterinarian for treatment. Finally, ACHS returned the animal to the Hegartys as soon as the state's attorney told ACHS to do so. The statute explicitly empowers ACHS to seize an animal when the humane officer determines it is necessary to protect its health or safety. The undisputed facts indicate that Meacham reasonably believed that Paka's health was in jeopardy and that immediate action was required to protect her. In doing so, Meacham followed the statutory procedures during and after the seizure. ACHS lawfully seized Paka and thus cannot be held liable for conversion. The Court agrees with the Hegartys that humane officers should, whenever possible, obtain a warrant prior to seizing an animal, but, when the circumstances demand it and the statutory procedures are followed, humane officers have the authority to seize animals without a warrant.