Mayor, judge at odds over pet store case

Mayor, judge at odds over pet store case

July 27th, 2010 by Kate Harrison Belz in Politics Local

Mayor Ron Littlefield and City Court Judge Sherry Paty are in dispute about whether they spoke to each other in a conference call involving the case between the Pet Company at Hamilton Place and the city's animal control division.

Judge Paty sparked the dispute Monday when she ordered a mistrial in the case and stepped down from the case due to a July 1 e-mail from the mayor and a subsequent open letter he wrote July 22 urging her to order restitution for McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center, which handles the city's animal control.

"I really need to talk with you about this situation," the e-mail from Mr. Littlefield reads. "We must not leave the McKamey Center holding the bag for all the expenses associated with the Pet Company's unacceptable conditions."

At the end of the e-mail, Mr. Littlefield wrote that "I do not trust" the Pet Company.

Judge Paty said, "It is absolutely inappropriate to contact a judge in an ex parte manner, where there are no attorneys present, to try to influence the outcome of a case. Especially when the city is a party to the case, and he is the highest elected official in the state."

Staff File Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Judge Sherry Paty asks questions of McKamey attorney Mark Litchford during the hearing where she heard arguments from the Pet Company and McKamey about restitution.

She emphasized that she did not respond to the e-mail, but said the mayor's involvement had tainted the integrity of her ruling, necessitating her stepping down from the case.

Her decision means the case, which began June 15 when the city raided the Pet Company on grounds of animal cruelty, may have to start "at ground zero," according to McKamey Executive Director Karen Walsh.

Judge Paty said that she has requested that the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts select a judge from another jurisdiction to preside over the case.

McKamey and city workers seized 84 animals during the June raid. The store was slapped with violations that included a nonworking air-conditioning system, filthy cages and inadequate watering of dogs that led to dehydration.

The city wanted the store's license revoked, but Judge Paty ruled that it could reopen - but must bring in all new animals - if it took care of the violations.

Afterward, McKamey officials asked for about $40,000 to reimburse them for the care of the animals, which were sent to other Pet Company stores.

Mr. Littlefield said Judge Paty's office arranged a conference call with his office after the e-mail was sent, and that he, Judge Paty and attorneys on both sides in the case convened July 7 to discuss "how the case should proceed."

"I was absolutely trying to persuade her not to leave the McKamey holding the bag for the costs associated with this, because the company was basically getting a free ride," the mayor said.

Judge Paty acknowledged that a conference call took place, but said it was between the attorneys and herself and, if Mr. Littlefield was present, he never involved himself in the conversation.

McKamey attorney Mark Litchford confirmed that he, Mr. Littlefield, the mayor's administrative assistant Marie Chinery and Ms. Walsh were all present at the mayor's office during the call, and that Judge Paty and Pet Company attorney Andy Pippinger were part of the call but from other locations.

Ms. Walsh said Mr. Littlefield and Judge Paty directly addressed each other at the time, but the judge denied any conversation with the mayor.

"He may have said something, but the attorneys were handling the conference," she said.

Richard Beeland, the mayor's spokesman, said there is no recording of the conversation, and that the mayor's office never records phone calls.

Mr. Littlefield said he never crossed the boundaries between legislative and judicial powers.

"I've dealt with city judges for 40 years, and none of my actions would be considered out of the realm of what's acceptable," he said.

He said he has regularly written letters to judges about cases, even federal judges.

Judge Paty said she was stunned that the mayor admitted to writing judges during pending lawsuits.

"I think any judge would tell you that's improper," she said.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Mayor sounds off on pet store

Article: $40,000 tab for pet care

Article: State to rule on pet seizure

Article: 22 Pet Company dogs have parasite

Article: Pet store scrutiny continues

Article: Pet Company facing license suspension

Article: Pet store animals taken to McKamey after months of complaints