Judge rules Fancy Cats Rescue Team's free-speech and retaliation lawsuit against head of controversial local animal shelter can move forward

When a volunteer animal-rescuer coordinator for Virginia-based Fancy Cats Rescue Team sent an email critical of the care provided by Baltimore County Animal Services at its Baldwin shelter in 2013, which has been the subject of much public controversy over its high rate of euthanasia and low rate of adoption, she and Fancy Cats were promptly banned by the shelter's director from rescuing its animals. Last year, Fancy Cats and its volunteer, Denise Arnot, sued the director, Charlotte Crenson, alleging that by banning them, she had retaliated against them for exercising their free-speech rights. Since then, Crenson moved to have the suit decided in her favor. Yesterday, Maryland U.S. District Judge James Bredar denied Crenson's effort.

Bredar ruled that Fancy Cats and Arnot have properly alleged a violation of "the right to exercise constitutionally protected free speech, free of a state actor's retaliatory adverse act," his opinion states, and that Crenson is not immune from being sued since her alleged conduct "violated a clearly established constitutional right." What's more, the plaintiff's claims are over a "valuable government benefit," namely their "opportunity to serve as a volunteer or partner with a government organization."  

Meanwhile, the shelter's practices continue to draw organized concern, including an ACLU letter accusing it of free-speech suppression—and another lawsuit. Filed in December in Baltimore County Circuit Court, that complaint asks that Baltimore County "cease and desist" from practices that "fail to abide" by laws that require it to "provide basic necessities to animals placed in their care, including wholesome food, potable water, a healthy and clean living environment, exercise, and basic veterinary care," and to "make reasonable efforts to contact the owners of impounded animals." The county's "routine failures result in the mistreatment and neglect of sick, wounded, and healthy animals alike, and in the unnecessary, inhumane, and wrongful killing of animals," states the lawsuit, which is being brought by three concerned citizens, Anne George, Jody Kesner, and Jody Rosoff.

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