SPRING HILL — A Pennsylvania-based service dog training charity has sued Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden for failing to return an 11-year-old poodle and for publicly telling the story of how she obtained the dog and why she is fighting to keep it.
Canine Partners for Life is seeking more than $100,000 in damages from Rowden and is demanding that she take down what they call her "campaign of disparagement'' from social media outlets, including a "Save Livy" Facebook page.
After news accounts appeared in early December and social media picked up the tale, Canine Partners was inundated with "malicious and disparaging posts to CPL's Facebook page,'' according to the lawsuit, forcing the charity to take down the page for a time "at the height of the holiday fundraising season.''
Canine Partners executive director Darlene Sullivan also has received "a multitude of hostile and threatening messages on a daily basis,'' according to the complaint. The charity even hired a public relations firm to "mitigate the damage to the organization.''
"Rowden's statements were so intentionally inflammatory and flagrantly false,'' the lawsuit states, that they were not just accidental or negligent but were made "with intentional, wilful and deliberate maliciousness to cause extensive harm and/or destroy CPL.''
Livy was the service dog of paraplegic Bruce Hicks, whom Rowden befriended several years ago. When Hicks fell ill, he asked Rowden to take care of Livy. When he was nearing the end of his life, he made Rowden promise to take the dog and changed his will to bequeath Livy to her.
In the days before his death in 2013, Hicks emailed Canine Partners, noting that he was dying. The charity's program director, Megan Esherick, asked Hicks if he had someone to whom he could take Livy, and she also requested contract information. Otherwise, Esherick said, Canine Partners could find her a good home.
Hicks responded that Rowden would take the dog.
The lawsuit says that narrative is "categorically false.''
"Under the transfer agreement, which CPL provided to Ms. Rowden long before any litigation commenced, ownership of Livy reverts to CPL upon Mr. Hicks' death — the only exception being a written agreement to the contrary.''
Canine Partners has been in a lawsuit with the executor of Hicks' estate and recently reached a settlement. The settlement included turning Livy over to Canine Partners, but Rowden never signed and agreed to the provision. Instead, she hired a lawyer who countered that if Canine Partners was going to force the return of Livy, now a cherished family pet, the charity owed her $42,000 for feeding and boarding.
Rowden maintains that her narrative of what happened is accurate and says she has the will and the emails to back up her claim. She said Livy is old, arthritic, afraid of thunderstorms, bonded to her family and other dogs, and is unable to be anyone's service dog anymore.
"When I met Bruce, at that time, I realized how much Livy was not a dog to him. She was life to him,'' Rowden said. "I made a promise to this man. ...What I've been doing is taking good care of Livy and fulfilling a promise I made on his deathbed.''