Dubin v. Pelletier

Decision Date21 November 2012
Docket NumberC.A. No. WC 10-0825
PartiesJAYNE DUBIN, Plaintiff v. LORI ANN PELLETIER, Defendant
CourtRhode Island Superior Court


SAVAGE, J. At the heart of this action is a dispute between an owner and handler over which of them is entitled to ownership and possession of a champion show dog—a Norfolk Terrier officially named "Ch Final Lea Big Ticket Item" and fondly referred to as "Mr. Big"—now that his show career is over. It should serve as a warning to owners and handlers in the high-stakes show dog world of the importance of entering into written contracts to delineate the relationship between them during a dog's show career and upon the dog's retirement.

Plaintiff Dubin contends that she is the sole and rightful owner of Mr. Big, and she seeks a declaratory judgment to establish her right to ownership and possession of Mr. Big, who is in the care and custody of Pelletier, after Pelletier's refusal to return the dog to Dubin at the end of his show career. Dubin also seeks to recover the stud fees in the amount of $16,000 that Pelletier collected in 2009 and 2010 for breeding Mr. Big under a theory of unjust enrichment and further claims damages for conversion.

Pelletier counterclaims that she is the rightful owner of Mr. Big because Dubin gifted him to her or because the parties entered into an implied contract that Pelletier would keep the dog in exchange for providing handling services to Dubin. Pelletier claims further that she is entitled topossession of Mr. Big as his guardian under R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 4-13-1.2 and 4-13-41, based on an implied contract with Dubin, or under a best interests of the dog analysis. She seeks a declaratory judgment to establish her right to ownership and possession of Mr. Big. In the alternative, Pelletier claims that she is entitled to the reasonable value of her services rendered to Dubin for the care and custody of Mr. Big under a theory of unjust enrichment in the amount of $74,887.80. She also seeks damages for fraudulent misrepresentation and fraudulent inducement claiming that Dubin falsely promised that she could keep Mr. Big to induce Pelletier to provide services for the dog. In addition to Mr. Big, Pelletier advances theories of implied contract, unjust enrichment and misrepresentation to attempt to recover monies allegedly due to her for services provided to Wilma and Iffy, two other dogs owned by Dubin, in the amount of $5374.06. In total, Pelletier claims damages in the amount of $80,261.86.

This case was tried before this Court, sitting without a jury. For the reasons set forth in this Decision, this Court declares that Dubin is the rightful owner of Mr. Big and is entitled to immediate possession of him. It also grants Dubin's claim for unjust enrichment and awards her monetary damages in the amount of $16,000 for stud fees for Mr. Big that are due and owing to her from Pelletier. It denies Dubin's claim for conversion. As to Pelletier, this Court denies her counterclaims for declaratory judgment, gift, implied contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, and fraudulent inducement as to Mr. Big. It awards Pelletier damages on her counterclaim for unjust enrichment for the reasonable value of her services rendered to Dubin as a professional dog handler for Mr. Big in the amount of $16,411.51. It also awards Pelletier damages for services that she provided Wilma and Iffy, based only on her counterclaim for implied contract, in the amount of $4024.50.

AThe Parties' Early Dealings with Mr. Big

Plaintiff Jayne Dubin lives in Chester, New Jersey. She has bred and shown purebred dogs for over fifty years. In 1995, she began specializing in breeding and showing Norfolk Terriers and is listed as the registered owner of Mr. Big with the AKC, a registry of purebred dogs.

In the late 1990's, Dubin first met Defendant Lori Ann Pelletier, who owns and maintains a kennel for show dogs as a hobby and charges for handling, showing, and boarding show dogs. Pelletier lived in Medfield, Massachusetts until the summer of 2010 when she moved to Exeter, Rhode Island. She has a number of dogs living with her, many of which belong to her clients and for which she provides room and board during the dogs' show careers.

After the parties initially met, the women continued to see each other at various dog shows and became good friends. Eventually, Dubin asked Pelletier to breed Vivian, one of her female Norfolk Terriers, with Zach, a male dog of the same breed belonging to Pelletier. (Joint Ex. 18, AKC My Dogs and Litters Breeder Records.) The parties continued a friendly and professional relationship, and in May of 2002, Pelletier supervised the breeding of Ticket, a female Norfolk Terrier belonging to Dubin, with Jasper, a male dog of the same breed belonging to one of Pelletier's clients. On July 29, 2002, Ticket had a litter of Norfolk Terrier puppies— one of which was Mr. Big.

Eight weeks later, Dubin and Pelletier discussed Mr. Big's potential as a show dog. Pelletier concluded, however, that Mr. Big was too young at that time for her to give her professional opinion as to his prospect for becoming a champion. In October of 2002, at an American Norfolk Terrier Association event, Dubin and Pelletier once again speculated as to Mr. Big's show dog potential. Pelletier expressed to Dubin that she believed that Mr. Big had developed traits characteristic of successful show dogs. On December 4, 2002, Dubin registered Mr. Big with the AKC, and the parties began discussing Mr. Big's impending AKC show career.

In or about December 2002 or January 2003, Dubin hired Pelletier to handle and groom Mr. Big while pursuing his AKC championship. Dubin sent Mr. Big to stay with Pelletier around February 2003. Mr. Big competed in multiple events between March 21, 2003 and May 17, 2003. (Joint Ex. 19, Dog Record Lookup for: Ch Final Lea Big Ticket Item.) After achieving his AKC championship, Mr. Big returned home with Dubin and remained with her until December 2004. The parties did not have a written contract concerning Mr. Big's AKC championship, although Pelletier did provide Dubin with a business card that listed her handling fees. (Pl. Ex. 5, Pelletier Business Card.) Dubin testified, however, that the business card was simply to provide her with Pelletier's contact information and that they had reached a different agreement with regard to fees. Id. Indeed, Nichola Conroy, another one of Pelletier's clients, testified at trial that Pelletier's business card provided simply a general guide of Pelletier's handling fees.

BThe Agreement for Mr. Big's Specials Career

In December of 2004, the parties discussed sending Mr. Big out for a specials campaign, which is a series of shows designed to allow a dog an opportunity to be ranked. Dubin andPelletier agreed orally that Pelletier would show Mr. Big. They agreed further that, as a condition of Pelletier's handling of Mr. Big during his specials campaign, she would keep Dubin more informed about Mr. Big's health than she had during Mr. Big's AKC championship career. In addition, as Pelletier testified during trial, they agreed that Dubin could terminate the agreement at any time and that Pelletier would bill Dubin for Mr. Big's expenses.

Rebecca Carner, an expert who testified at trial on behalf of Pelletier, opined that until the late 2000's, individuals involved in the dog show world as owners and handlers typically employed oral, as opposed to written, agreements. (Def. Ex. CCC, Carner Curriculum Vitae.) Pelletier herself explained that she only recently started using written contracts with her clients. Pelletier had an oral agreement with her client, Marsha Penrose, for example, for Pelletier's handling and breeding services. (Joint Ex. 11, Depo. Penrose, Aug. 10, 2011, at 19.) Pelletier also had an oral agreement with another client concerning the ownership rights of an AKC-registered dog, which resulted in a lawsuit that lasted from 1998 to 2002. (Pl. Ex. 49, Depo. Joyce Coccia, Oct. 25, 2011, at 7.) Yet, the evidence adduced at trial revealed that Pelletier did occasionally make written contracts. One of Pelletier's clients testified at a deposition—which the parties agreed to make part of the trial record—that she had a written contract with Pelletier, dated August 12, 2008, regarding the transfer of the ownership rights of her dog to Pelletier at the end of the dog's show career. (Joint Ex. 10, Depo. Omansky, Aug. 9, 2011, at 11-13; Pl. Ex. 12, Co-ownership and Show Handling Agreement For A Show Dog.)

While the parties here concur that they had an oral agreement, they dispute many of its terms, including the core question of the ownership rights to Mr. Big, payments of Mr. Big's specials campaign expenses, and the rights to Mr. Big's stud fees. With regard to ownership rights, Dubin testified that there was no conversation with Pelletier about a change in ownershipor leaving Mr. Big with her after his show career. Rather, before she sent Mr. Big to stay with Pelletier, Dubin testified that she took steps to ensure that there would be no confusion regarding his ownership. Specifically, on October 19, 2004, Dubin had Mr. Big's DNA analyzed and registered with the AKC. (Pl. Ex. 8, The AKC Certificate of DNA Analysis.) Dubin obtained a certificate of DNA analysis from the AKC identifying her as Mr. Big's owner. (Pl. Ex. 10, AKC Registration Certificate.) Dubin also had a microchip implanted in Mr. Big, for security purposes, with the accompanying registration form identifying Dubin as Mr. Big's sole owner. (Pl. Ex. 9, Companion Animal Recovery Confirmation, Microchip Form.)

Conversely, Pelletier alleges that Dubin offered to let Pelletier keep Mr. Big at the end of his show career in exchange for Pelletier's services. Pelletier explained that they reached this compromise because Dubin said that she could not afford to finance Mr. Big's specials career and did not want to house a...

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