Law & Justice

Judge: Jersey Animal Coalition Can Reopen Shelter, Begin Adoptions

The JAC and the Village are working on a settlement that will keep them out of State Superior Court

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ (UPDATED) – A Superior Court judge lifted the quarantine against the animal shelter operated by the Jersey Animal Coalition and will allow the shelter to adopt animals out after the JAC filed a lawsuit earlier today.

Judge Dennis Carey III also forbid South Orange from taking any action to evict the JAC from the animal shelter on Walton Avenue. The village had served an eviction notice to the JAC effective July 9, citing lease violations.

The JAC and its president filed a lawsuit today (July 7) in state Superior Court in Essex County against the village and several of its employees.

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The suit, filed today (July 7), alleges that the village overstepped its authority in a number of areas while attempting to close the shelter. Defendants include village Administrator Barry Lewis, Deputy Administrator Adam Loehner, health officer John Festa, and former JAC executive board President Robert Barenbach.

“The Jersey Animal Coalition takes great pride in serving the residents of South Orange and Maplewood at no cost,” said Ruth Perlmutter, president of the JAC’s executive board. “The Board, our staff and all our volunteers want nothing more than to continue that service, save the lives of animals and find them loving homes. Due to our dedication to no-kill sheltering, today we are filing suit against South Orange and we thank the public for all the support we have received in this difficult time.”

The plaintiff’s brief, written by attorney William Strazza, cites five causes of action. Two of these allege that South Orange and Barenbach are responsible for many of the issues found at the shelter during the March 12 inspection, which resulted in the ongoing quarantine.

“Defendant, South Orange, beached the terms of the lease in that an ACO (animal control officer) brought a feral cat to the shelter after hours, and then left said cat in the shelter’s general population,” reads the document.  “Upon JAC investigation, it was this cat which caused the outbreak of ringworm at the shelter which then served as basis for the quarantine imposed by defendant in March 2014.”

The brief also argues that Barenbach failed in his duties as board president by firing the facility’s veterinarian and not replacing him, which ultimately led to the use of expired medications and inadequate record keeping.

If there is a positive side to the lawsuit, it is that the deficiencies found during the initial inspection have finally been confirmed by the JAC, according to Lewis.

“At least at this point they do acknowledge that these issues exist, even if they are blaming them on Mr. Barenbach,” Lewis said.

The brief also alleges that South Orange overstepped its authority in dealing with the conflict between the shelter and the village.

According to the lease agreement, the JAC serves both South Orange and Maplewood, and both towns must agree on a course of action before it is implemented. The brief states that South Orange served the JAC an eviction notice without Maplewood’s consent.

“Wherefore, plaintiff, JAC seeks a declaration from this Court that South Orange may not, under said lease, act unilaterally and that JAC is not in breach,” reads the brief.

Finally, the document alleges that South Orange’s municipal code, as it relates to the issues at hand, is unconstitutional because it sets forth standards that cannot be accurately reviewed and grants the local health department more authority than allowed by statute.

“SOMC §172-77 is unconstitutional, in that it is overly broad, vague, and sets no enforceable standard nor one which can be properly reviewed,” according to the brief.  “SOMC §172-77 is unconstitutional, as it affords the local health department more authority than that which is delegated by statute of administrative code.”

Lewis responded to the filing of the lawsuit by saying that the information in Strazza’s brief is incorrect and that the village will continue to take action as needed.

“We’re disappointed that they chose this course of action,” he said. “Their arguments are factually inaccurate, and we’ll respond to them as they develop.”

UPDATED 7/7/14 at 3:55 p.m. This version updates the story to add new information regarding the judge's order to allow the shelter to reopen.

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