Judge throws out Smith's lawsuits

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By Christopher Brooke

A federal court judge has dismissed lawsuits against Henry County and Animal Control Officer Dan Flinkfelt filed by a woman who had more than 200 animals seized on her property in December 2011 during an animal cruelty investigation.
The Dec. 12, 2011, raid on Terri Smith’s home led to Flinkfelt charging both her and her husband Kenneth with 218 counts of second-degree animal cruelty.
The animal control officer, staff, two deputies and volunteers also seized at least 100 dogs, as well as cats, horses, hermit crabs, guinea pigs, a blind owl and a hybrid wolf at that time.
The Smiths were not at home during the animal control officer’s search of the property, which stemmed from a report of a thin dog on the premises.
U.S. Marshals later arrested Terri Smith in Bullitt County and Kenneth Smith surrendered to marshals in La Grange.
Kenneth Smith killed himself in a vehicle at their home one week after the raid.
Terri Smith settled the criminal charges against her by taking a plea agreement. She pleaded guilty to one count of the animal cruelty charges and agreed to pay restitution.
As a result, Smith was sentenced to serve 365 days in jail, to pay Kentucky $9,467 in restitution and to forfeit all her animals to the state.
In December 2012, Terri Smith filed two lawsuits against both Flinkfelt and Henry County.
Originally filed in Henry County court, the cases were transferred to the United States District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky on a motion of Carol Petitt from Schiller, Osbourn, Barnes and Maloney in Louisville, who represented Henry County. She requested the cases be transferred because they dealt with constitutional issues, which are a federal court’s jurisdiction.
One of Smith’s suits alleged that Henry County and its animal control officer violated her constitutional rights in the seizure of the animals and the loss of their value.
After her kennels initially got a good review from Flinkfelt in 2009, Smith said in her lawsuit that she asked the animal control officer for help in October 2011, because she had been overwhelmed due to personal illness and an increasing number of rescue animals coming in.
The answer she got was that Flinkfelt couldn’t help until a new shelter was completed in spring 2012, according to the court papers.
In her original complaint, Smith noted that a day after the December 2011 search of her property that “Flinkfelt told the news media that he had an anonymous tip of animal hoarding and a puppy mill at an Allyson Lane home, that hundreds of animals were covered in mud, feces and urine, that the couple’s living condition was horrendous, that [Smith] and her husband were on the run from the law, and that when they were caught, they would be prosecuted.”
The suit argued that her property had been improperly seized, that the county didn’t sell the animals for their fair market value, and that she should have received credit toward her restitution from money donated to Henry County Animal Control in the wake of the raid.
Smith claimed that due to the county’s actions, she had “suffered loss of her property, loss of income and severe mental anguish in connection with the deprivation of her constitutional and statutory rights.”
She also claimed that Flinkfelt “should have known of the harassment, embarrassment and humiliation to which individuals such as the plaintiff would be subjected to as a result of charging and arresting on the charges of cruelty of animals and to charges of running a puppy mill.”
The lawsuits alleged that such “inflammatory” and “incorrect” statements being made to the press and in public resulted in Smith “suffering from unwarranted embarrassment and humiliation.”
Smith sought an unspecified amount of punitive damages for her mental anguish and emotional upset.
The second suit claimed that Kenneth Smith’s “untimely death” occurred due to the statements made in connection to the animal cruelty case, causing him to suffer “severe and grievous mental and emotional suffering, anguish, nervousness, anxiety and depression.”
“On Dec. 19, 2011, when Plaintiff’s husband arrived at his workplace, he was harassed by people accusing him of cruelty and running a puppy mill,” Smith’s complaint said.
“On Dec. 20, 2011, after a week of media reports and harassment by protestors, the Plaintiff’s husband took his own life.”
As of a March 31 ruling by Judge Van Tatenhove, both of Smith’s lawsuits against Henry County have now been dismissed.
The judge found that the county had acted correctly in this incident, Petitt said. Henry County and its officials did not discriminate against Smith or improperly deprive her of property.
Despite the claim of failing to give Smith credit toward her restitution through the sale of the forfeited animals, Tatenhove wrote in his opinion that $4,000 had been applied to the money she owed the state through the adoption and sale of the animals.
Additionally, Smith cannot sue Henry County or Flinkfelt in connection with this incident because the local government has sovereign immunity in carrying out official actions, the judge decided.
Henry County made a long list of arguments about why Smith’s lawsuits should be dismissed, the judge noted in the opinion, including that Terri Smith agreed to plead guilty to the charge of second-degree animal cruelty and to pay restitution.
Smith did not answer the county’s motion that the federal court dismiss the case in a request for summary judgment, according to the opinion.
“By not responding, Smith has left the court with no legal arguments to consider on her behalf for many of the issues raised in [Henry County’s] very substantial motion for summary judgment,” according to the court’s opinion. “The truth is that Smith has failed to present arguments in support of the vast majority of her claims.”
Smith’s claims failed to show how Flinkfelt had acted in “bad faith,” or maliciously intended to harm her or acted with a “corrupt motive” in her being charged or the seizure of the animals, the court’s opinion said.
The lawsuit did not specify what “specific, deliberate act” carried out by Flinkfelt that caused her emotional distress, Tatenhove wrote.
Nor does the suit identify what statements were defamatory.
“With regard to any allegedly inappropriate statements that Flinkfelt made to the media, Smith has failed to direct the court’s attention to any evidence which shows those statements were incorrect or untrue,” according to the court’s opinion.
“Rather the complaint suggests that he made comments about Smith’s cruelty to animals. As Smith pled guilty to charges of animal cruelty, it is difficult to see how this could be evidence of bad faith.”
 “Without having demonstrated the violation of an established right which a person in Flinkfelt’s position ‘presumptively would have known was afforded to a person in the plaintiff’s position’ or showing that ‘the officer or employee willfully or maliciously intended to harm the plaintiff or acted with a corrupt motive,’ Smith cannot overcome the qualified immunity defense,” the opinion states.
The time period during which Smith could appeal these rulings has elapsed, so the lawsuits can go no further, County Attorney Virginia Harrod has reported to the Henry County Fiscal Court.