The journalist, animal rights advocate and former volunteer at the Southampton Town Animal Shelter, on winning her first amendment case against the town, civil rights for volunteers and taking the heat as a journalist.
On December 2, for the second time in two years, a court sided with you over the Town of Southampton in a first amendment rights case that sets a precedent giving volunteers the same constitutional rights as paid employees. How did this case come to be? What transpired in 2004 that led to your initial suit against the town?
In February of 2004, I had been writing a column called Shelter Stories for The Southampton Press and had been doing a radio show for WLNG in Sag Harbor, both which I did in order to try and get shelter animals adopted. Volunteering at the Southampton Town Animal Shelter, and walking the dogs on a regular basis, I saw that adoptable dogs were being euthanized, and witnessed improper care, which I reported and expected would be changed. I never reported these things in my column or on my radio show, which was an important distinction later on in the court case, but I reported these things in “letters to the editor.” They ended up being read by a lot of people. I started writing in 2002 and immediately began to have a following. I also saw a lot destructive letters from people I did not even know of a defamatory nature. I responded to the issues, but I did try to not make things personal, even when I believed the letters may have been planted or written by someone who worked at the shelter … Eventually, Donald Bambrick, who was the supervisor and still retains that title, made the decision to get rid of me. Instead of calling me, or writing a letter – giving me any notice – I went in one day, on a week day, walked the dogs and the next thing I knew four uniformed officers, one wearing a taser gun, said “You are no longer welcome here,” and escorted me off the premises. I had no warning or expectation this would happen. I left peacefully, although I made it clear I understood I had broken no rules. A lot of people were watching. It was a humiliating experience.
So I got in touch with Steven Morrelli, a lawyer in Carle Place and he informed me this was a first amendment rights issue, that I was allowed to express my opinions as long as I was not defaming anyone.
What happened in court?
In February of 2007, in United States District Court in Central Islip, on Valentine’s Day, I received a verdict in my favor – a unanimous jury verdict. The town actually polled the jury. They awarded me $251,000, $1000 more than we were seeking, to make the point they would have awarded us more. The judge did reduce it to $50,000 plus legal fees because it was a municipality being affected, not based on the merits of the case. He made it clear that volunteers do not hang up their civil rights when they walk in the door, as long as rules aren’t broken, and I did not break any rules. He was making a statement about the rights of volunteers and so did the jury. It was a really trying experience for me, and I think they knew that. I had my column taken away, my radio show ended, my ability to help the animals was taken away and I was even smeared in the “letters to the editor.” It was genuinely upsetting, and I truly was not doing any of this for any other reason than I felt I could help the animals. All and all, it was a bittersweet victory.
The original ruling, and the town’s loss of its appeal last week, upholds the precedent that volunteers should be afforded the same rights as paid employees. When you filed the suit, did you realize how wide reaching the court’s decision could be in terms of ensuring the rights of volunteers?
Yes, I did. We realized nationwide there was no protection for volunteers. We knew it would be a significant ruling, and so did, I think, the judge and jury. And then, to my surprise, after the original ruling, a town board member said I would never see a dime and they decided to appeal the ruling. They submitted papers to the appellate court, and Morrelli asked that it get there quickly for health reasons, and on December 2, we got the ruling in our favor.
To your knowledge, does the town have the ability to try for another appeal, or is this struggle truly over?
I don’t believe the town can appeal this decision.
The root of the dispute that led to your dismissal as a volunteer for the town’s animal shelter was a disagreement regarding the management of the shelter and its euthanasia policy. Do you believe things have gotten better at the shelter since 2004?
From what we are seeing now, it may be a return to the bad, old days. They are reducing extremely valuable staff, including a vet technician that is integral to the shelter. She is a very qualified person … They also just euthanized a dog that RSVP [Responsible Solutions for Valued Pets – a non profit, organization with a no kill mandate] wanted to save – an eight month old pit bull puppy whose owner was arrested and who nipped at the boot of a cop. The cop wasn’t hurt and did not file charges, and RSVP said they would take the dog and work with him. His name was Jigger and I felt terrible something could not have been done about that.
In the beginning, it did appear as if things were improving there and there were a lot of positive signs, but now things might be going back to the way things were.
Is there any relief now that this issue seems to be put to rest? Any closure?
There is closure in the sense that legally there appears there is nothing that can happen. I have not seen any money. There is not closure in that there are still people who don’t know what to make of this whole thing. When a municipality goes as far as they did, some people think maybe there is something wrong with this woman. But I only did any of this for the animals. As a journalist, I am used to the heat; but I always had NBC right behind me. But here I was in a town where a lot of people did not know me except through what happened.
What is next for Pat Lynch?
What is next is for me to get back to work, in the world of journalism. That is what I would love to do. I really miss it. I worked for Gannett [News Service] and all three major networks, so I have a lot of experience. It would be nice to get back to something that serious.Â