Mtume Salaam 8:43 a.m., May 24
Central Division Small Claims: Pet Custody Case
What begins as a young lover’s tale in another southwest city five years ago ends here in a Small Claims courtroom. Names were substituted. Andrew and Eve were in love back then, at least in Andrew’s heart and mind. Both loved dogs. They visited city pounds in that other city & found a pup they named Juice. During one of their early moments together, they agreed in the event of a breakup to never to withhold Juice from the other. The nature of love can go from ideal to dark. Romance dies. Soon both each moved to San Diego. The Juice, as agreed, was shared, alternate weeks. Per Eve, “Like a child.” The arrangement worked for some time, eventually the exchanges, like the relationship crapped. The concept of dog or cat custody between separating couples exists and brews hatred into nasty conflicts. Some couples decide having two pets is the best way to make any separation easier. There was no written agreement for Juicie. Only a verbal one. Eventually, the exes had new San Diego mates. With more family sharing Juice, conflict grew contentious. Tension increased even more when Andrew and his new partner, Miriam became parents to a baby, Noel. Andrew believed when he became a dad is when Eve started what evolved into custody battle for the Juicer. On the day of a scheduled transfer of Juice, she let Andrew know she was keeping the dog. Claiming Juice was aggressive & she feared for the safety of the baby. The decision was made in Juice and Noel’s best interest. Andrew was floored. Missing el Juice, he was consumed. Advised to “go get the dog back” he rejected the idea for months until his obsession finally overcame him. He went to bring Juice home. This court hearing was a ‘motion to vacate judgment’; an appeal by Andrew, defendant. He failed to appear for the previous hearing and Eve won by default. Andrew claimed he wasn’t served. The judge explained that quite a few defendants make the same point, but for the fact that many of them actively evade being served. Andrew pleaded he had, “No clue about the case” until receiving notice he had lost. He also told the judge he wanted to settle the matter in court, but he’d been told it wasn’t permitted. He understood a claim could only be filed for money, not a dog. Judge Solomon vacated the judgment and after parties exchanged evidence, the trial would begin. He noted, “This is not a trial by ambush.” While Eve’s father, an attorney, was present, rules only permit for an attorney to advise but, not speak for either party. Eve claimed that Andrew’s documents were falsified, to which Andrew also stated the same regarding Eve’s records. In addition to wanting Juice, Eve was also seeking $1000 in reimbursement she had a problem explaining. Eve claimed it was her idea to get a dog, to choose and name Juice; & the one who paid for his adoption fees, shots and microchip. She explained her decision to keep Juice was because Andrew was getting more hostile. And, she was concerned about Noel’s welfare. Eve told the judge she decided the dog needed a more stable home and she wasn’t going to share his custody anymore. Period. Then on a November evening while walking Juice, Eve heard a runner coming from behind her. The person was dressed all in black with a black beanie, but not a ski mask. She recognized Andrew’s voice when he called to the dog and pulled on the leash in her hand. The dog became free from the loose collar. Andrew ran off with Juice following. Eve was left with an empty leash in her hand. The police were called and after making contact with both parties, indicated they could not intercede in a civil matter. No crime was considered to have been committed. By the court date, Juice had been in Andrew’s custody for six-months. Eve had not seen Juicer for that entire period. The baby Noel is already one-year old and according to Andrew - the dog & child interact well. Tearfully, Eve related she is unable to bear children of her own. “Juice is my baby”. She said, “The impact was horrible. My baby was literally ripped from my hands.” They may have been for effect. I can’t tell. Andrew’s witness chuckled and was admonished by the judge, “This isn’t a ballpark. It’s a courtroom.” Eve’s current boyfriend and witness said he spoke with police. Eve was “in tears having the dog taken from her.” He noted, “Andrew no longer had visiting privileges” because he had become “too agitated”. Andrew contested Eve’s presentation “from the get go”. He knew “something was shady” and claimed the papers she presented were falsified. He told the judge, “For the longest time, she lived in places that didn’t allow pets. She only wanted to see Juicer sporadically for a day or two at a time.” Andrew said he had “no dispute that we were both owners - right down the middle”. His opinion was that Eve kept Juice “out of spite”. Her actions hit him “out of the blue”. “There was a mutual agreement. No matter what, I wouldn’t have kept Juicie away from her”, he told the judge. Andrew also denied being attired in all black attire and doesn’t recall wearing a beanie, but could have been wearing a hat if it was cold. Otherwise, Andrew admitted to taking the dog from Eve as she did from him. “She put herself in this situation.” He said, “The arrangement would have continued but she got greedy.” Andrew offered happy pictures of Noel and Juice together to dispute Eve. Andrew’s witness offered, “And, possession is 9/10ths of the law.” The judge looked at him without commenting. Both of Miriam’s parents presented as defense witnesses. Each denied the dog was a danger to Noel; they wouldn’t tolerate it. The grandmother said Juicer sleeps under the baby’s crib & that he has a “wonderful life. He’s in a good home.” Andrew made a final statement, “I only want the dog to be happy. He’s happiest with us.” Eve said, “I only want the Juice to be with his rightful owner. That’s me.” The judge, with his eyes on Andrew said, “This is America where we settle our disputes; not just take them in own hands.” Andrew spoke back, “But, she took him from me.” The judge’s last words, “No. There’s a difference between keeping and taking.” Judge Solomon explained he would review the evidence closer; specifically the similar ownership documents and render a decision by mail within 30 days. Leaving the courtroom, I asked the bailiff, Louis, if he had seen any other pet custody cases. He told me, “A few”. Afterward, Eve’s father the lawyer said, “Based on the judge’s summation, I think we have a good chance.” Andrew told me, “I’m still nervous. Happy it’s over, but I’m not done sweating.” I went outside and had the chance to meet Noel & the Juice. They seemed happy together. Just three days later, I got word a decision was already sent. It read, “The dog known as Juice belongs to Andrew. Monetary damages are denied. No additional appeals are permitted.” Neither Andrew nor Eve was reached for their reaction to the outcome.