“Truth In Pet Adoption Law” Compels Disclosure of Dog Bites

Alvarado v. City of Los Angeles, also known as the “Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case,” brought attention to a newly implemented law in California and Virginia. This law requires both public shelters and private rescues to provide written disclosure of a dog’s bite history and the circumstances surrounding each incident, as part of the adoption process. Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, the advocate for the Alvarado family and the author of Dog Bite Law (dogbitelaw.com), refers to the statute as the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law.” On May 17, 2023, a judge from the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in favor of the Alvarado family, affirming that the California version of these laws necessitates mandatory disclosure. The court also ruled that a public shelter can be held liable for damages if a violation of the law results in an injury to an individual. This case marked the first notable challenge to the “Truth in Adoption Law.” The court’s decision holds national significance as it has the potential to rejuvenate pet adoptions, improve public safety, and enhance the well-being of shelter dogs.

Text of the Truth in Pet Adoption Law

California

Two statutes in the California Food & Agriculture Code set forth that state’s “Truth in Pet Adoption Law.” These statutes, namely Section 30503.5 and Section 30526, share identical wording but apply to different county classifications based on population. Section 30503.5 is applicable to counties with over 100,000 residents, while Section 30526 pertains to counties with fewer than 100,000 residents. In the case of Alvarado v. City of Los Angeles, the relevant code section is 30503.5. This is because the pit bull in question was adopted from the East Valley Shelter, which falls under the jurisdiction of the City of Los Angeles situated in a county with a population of 9.7 million. The crucial language in both statutes is as follows:

(b) If an animal shelter or rescue group knows, to the best of the knowledge of the shelter or rescue group, that a dog, at the age of four months or older, bit a person and broke that person’s skin, thus requiring a state-mandated bite quarantine, the animal shelter or rescue group shall, before selling, giving away, or otherwise releasing the dog, do both of the following:
(1) Disclose in writing to the person to whom the dog is sold, given away, or transferred, the dog’s known bite history and the circumstances related to the bite.
(2) Obtain a signed acknowledgment from the person to whom the dog is sold, given away, or transferred that the person has been provided information about the dog as required by this section. The animal shelter or rescue group shall provide the person with a copy of the signed acknowledgment and retain the original copy in its files.

Virginia

The Virginia version is Code of Virginia section 3.2-6509.1. The pertinent subsection is as follows:

A. Any custodian of a releasing agency, animal control officer, law-enforcement officer, or humane investigator, upon taking custody of any dog or cat in the course of his official duties, shall ask and document whether, if known, the dog or cat has bitten a person or other animal and the circumstances and date of such bite. Any custodian of a releasing agency, animal control officer, law-enforcement officer, or humane investigator, upon release of a dog or cat for (i) adoption, (ii) return to a rightful owner, or (iii) transfer to another agency, shall disclose, if known, that the dog or cat has bitten a person or other animal and the circumstances and date of such bite.

Origin of the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law”

In 2005, during the Biting Dog Conference held in Novato, California, Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips delivered a seminar that lasted for an hour and a half to an audience comprised of animal control officers, public shelter workers, rescue groups, dog trainers, and lawyers. One segment of the seminar, lasting fifteen minutes, was dedicated to discussing the legal obligation to be truthful when placing a dog up for adoption. Phillips emphasized that shelters and rescues were responsible for gathering information from previous owners, documenting all observations made while the dog was in their care, and providing a comprehensive written disclosure, signed by the adopters, to those interested in adopting the dog. This seminar clip from 2005, titled “Avoiding Liability When Working With Dogs,” includes a one-minute excerpt of Phillips’ remarks, where he stresses the importance of a written and signed disclosure similar to what would be mandated by the laws in California and Virginia more than a decade later:

On February 14, 2019, Assembly Bill 588 was introduced by two California Legislature members, Assemblymen Phillip Chen (AD 59) and Kevin Mullin (currently serving as a US Congressman). The bill aimed to establish Food & Agriculture Code sections 30503.5 and 30526. During the public comment period for the proposed legislation, the California Animal Welfare Association conveyed to the California Legislature that there had been a significant increase in the number of emergency room visits resulting from dog bites. They further asserted, “[m]any of these instances could have been prevented if owners were given the proper information regarding a dog’s bite history and the circumstances surrounding particular incidents.”

The Senate Committee noted there was a loophole in the law of adoption. Their report said, “current law does not require a shelter or rescue group to disclose information to individuals regarding the animal’s dog bite history.” Upon conducting a thorough examination, the Legislature found that some shelters were disclosing the bite history but others were not. The Senate Committee concluded, “The solution to this is to require that any shelter or rescue that adopts out or transfers an animal disclose to the adopter or rescue that the dog has a known bite history and circumstances of the bite.”

The California Animal Welfare Association told the Legislature, “by ensuring shelters and rescues disclose this information to potential adopters, AB 588 [the bill that resulted in secs. 30503.5 and 30526] will make sure that this best practice already used in many shelters is more consistently and broadly practiced in shelters and with rescues across the state . . . .” In other words, the purpose of these sections was to make the duty of disclosure obligatory, without any exceptions. Therefore, the statutes state that shelters and rescues “shall” provide the written disclosure. The term “shall” in the Food & Agriculture Code signifies the creation of a mandatory duty.

Throughout the legislative process, starting from committee review to the full Assembly and Senate, every vote demonstrated unanimous support for the enactment of the bill. Consequently, on October 2, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom approved and signed into law sections 30503.5 and 30526. These sections were subsequently named the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” by Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips.

Erosion of Trust in the Pet Adoption System

There was another reason for enacting “Truth in Pet Adoption Laws,” namely the erosion of trust in the pet adoption system throughout the country. In the decade preceding these laws, there were numerous instances where an innocent child or adult was mauled or killed by a vicious dog that, after being impounded, was put back into the community by a high-minded, but irresponsible, shelter employee. The consequences of re-homing vicious dogs were often drastic. For example, on April 29, 2016, a pit bull-mix rehomed by the San Diego Humane Society killed a baby, 3-day old Sebastian Caban. (See Colleen Lynn, 2016 Dog Bite Fatality: Pit Bull Rehomed by Humane Society Kills Newborn Baby.) Fosters working with adoption groups and rescue groups were being injured and killed. (See Rebecca Carey, Georgia Student, Killed By Dogs She Rescued.) And even volunteers at shelters were suffering life-changing injuries from vicious dogs; in fact, one such incident occurred at another City of Los Angeles shelter and the jury awarded $6.8 million to the woman whose arm was injured (see Mikhaila Friel and Grace Eliza Goodwin, An Animal Shelter Volunteer Who Was Attacked by a Dog That Nearly Ripped Off Her Arm Has Been Awarded $6.8 Million in Damages).

The methods used for tricking people into adopting unadoptable dogs have included the misuse of temperament tests (see Alexandra Semyonova, Behavior Testing Shelter Dogs — The Reality of Where We Are Now) and “dog laundering” which is the term coined by Attorney Phillips to describe the practice of moving a dog from one group to another for the purpose of sanitizing its record of vicious behavior toward people and animals. (See Phillips, Don’t Support Dog Laundering.) In one notorious case, a dogo Argentino that killed a man in New York was released for rehabilitation to a rescue group in Ohio and then was stolen. (See Jim Sielicki, BLADE, Dog freed in murder stolen from local kennel.)

The following animal shelters were implicated in “dog laundering” schemes to re-home vicious dogs with unsuspecting families:

These moral lapses and outright criminal actions by shelters and rescues began to seriously erode the public’s trust in the pet adoption system. On the one hand, the public was told not to get a dog from a breeder, but from a public shelter. On the other hand, there were more and more news reports about maulings caused by the deceptive practices of shelter “humaniacs” — a term coined by Phillips to describe those who put the welfare of dogs ahead of the safety of people. The Truth in Pet Adoption Laws thus were needed to restore trust in the system.

The Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case Proves that Courts Will Enforce “Truth in Pet Adoption Laws”

The horrific mauling of Argelia Alvarado happened on September 26, 2020, as a result of events that took place at a City of Los Angeles animal shelter in May and June of the same year. The facts are summarized in Shelters Can Be Forced to Tell the Whole Truth and set forth in detail in the Complaint filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court as Alvarado v. City of Los Angeles, 21STCV27837. Some of the key facts were as follows.

  • In May 2020, a pit bull named “O’Gee” brutally attacked a jogger in Los Angeles. The dog was impounded and the city’s animal control officer wrote in the dog’s records that the attack was vicious, the injuries moderate, and that a hearing should take place to consider euthanizing the dog.
  • Two weeks later, however, a supervisor at the city’s animal shelter authorized giving the dog to anyone who asked for it, rather than sending it to any of the rescue groups that could house a vicious dog safely and humanely.
  • Days later, employees at the shelter adopted-out the dog to the adult son of 70-year-old Argelia Alvarado without warning him or telling him the dog’s bite history and circumstances of the bite. He adopted the dog, thinking it was friendly and safe.
  • Just 3 months later, it mauled his mother in the backyard of the house they shared, shredding both of her arms and almost entirely chewing off her right one. Doctors had to amputate it almost to her shoulder. Additionally, her left arm was permanently disabled in the attack.
  • A police officer at the scene of the mauling said Mrs. Alvarado’s arm was “looking like it went through a meat grinder and the bones were broken.” Because of the police officer’s description of Mrs. Alvarado’s injuries, her lawsuit was called the “Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case.”

Following the filing of the Alvarado case, the City of Los Angeles, which initially endorsed the enactment of California’s “Truth in Pet Adoption Law,” made an about-face. The City asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to declare that the law made disclosure of a dog’s bite history optional. The City argued that section 30503.5 allowed a shelter to use its discretion in applying the law. If the City’s position had been successful, the law would have become entirely ineffective.

In opposing the City’s motion to throw out the “Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case,” Attorney Phillips told the court —

“Good-hearted people who come to a shelter with the intention of giving a dog a loving, forever home must be treated with honesty. It’s not optional for our government to tell us the truth. We have a right to the full truth about something we are taking into our homes to share with our children, spouses, and parents. This case is based on that right.”

 On May 17, 2023, the court rejected the City’s bid to gut the law. The judge’s written decision stated —

“The language in [section 30503.5] is mandatory as exemplified by the repeated use of the word ‘shall.’ If the animal shelter knows of a bite by a dog four months or older, it is required to disclose that information and obtain a signed acknowledgment. There is no discretion contemplated by the statute.”

A Case of National Importance

The court’s decision in the “Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case” holds significant national implications. While currently only two states have implemented a “Truth in Pet Adoption Law,” it is crucial for all 50 states to adopt such legislation. Every individual across the country deserves the truth when adopting a rescue dog. The court’s ruling means a well-crafted “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” will be enforced by judges, allowing victims to seek reimbursement for medical expenses and compensation for the pain and suffering resulting from violations. This ruling is also important for the well-being of dogs because, without proper disclosure, dogs unsuitable for adopters may end up back in shelters or left abandoned on the streets.

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