Jury awards dog-rescue volunteer $150 in lawsuit against county

2014-07-31T14:38:00Z 2014-08-04T10:12:04Z Jury awards dog-rescue volunteer $150 in lawsuit against countyBy EDDIE GREGG egregg@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A four-year-legal battle between Yellowstone County and a woman who claimed her rights were violated came to a close Wednesday, with a jury awarding the woman $150.

The woman had also claimed she should have been allowed to adopt a dog seized in an animal cruelty case.

After three days of testimony Wednesday, a jury found that Penny S. Ronning was intimidated by a county employee but cleared the county in all other claims made in the lawsuit.

Ronning volunteered in 2009 to help care for some of the roughly 200 dogs officials seized from Linda Kapsa, a Ballantine dog-breeder convicted of aggravated animal cruelty. Kapsa was given 20 years of probation.

Ronning’s lawsuit, filed in 2010, made a laundry list of claims and gave a detailed narrative of her perspective on the dog rescue efforts, alleging the county and some of its employees involved in the rescue project created a culture of intimidation, retaliation and animal neglect.

Ronning claimed she was retaliated against after she and a few other volunteers started complaining about the county’s handling of the rescued dogs, which were being housed at MetraPark.

Initially, Sam McKechnie, S. Ardel Ronning and C. Ila Ronning were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Kevin Gillen, the county’s chief civil litigator, said Thursday that the county settled with those three for $3,000 each.

The jury apparently didn’t buy most of Ronning’s claims, ruling that the county did not violate her right to peaceably protest, her right to participate in government or her right to due process.

The jury also found that the county did not breach a contract with Ronning for the adoption of a dog, and that Lt. Michael Schieno of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office did not slander her or intimidate her when he had her banned from MetraPark.

According to Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Mark A. English, there was concern that Ronning would attempt to steal a dog she had been caring for from MetraPark.

Ronning claimed the county was taking advantage of free labor provided by volunteers and not providing adequately for the dogs, prompting some volunteers to pay out-of-pocket for the animals’ needs.

Ronning’s attorney, Elizabeth J. Honaker, said her client volunteered, without pay, about 1,500 hours. Honaker said during the trial that $100 a day would be a fair amount to award Ronning for her efforts.

English said that would equate to about $110,000.

The jury sided with Ronning on only one matter, finding that Georgia Peters, a temporary county employee involved in the rescue project, intimidated Ronning. For that intimidation, the jury awarded Ronning $150, which the county is obligated to pay.

Honaker asserted that there was an “implied contract” between the county and her client stipulating that Ronning would be given first choice in adopting any of the Kapsa dogs for which she cared.

The county partnered with a rescue organization, National English Shepherd Rescue, to adopt out the seized dogs.

English argued that it was up to that organization — not the county — to decide who was allowed to adopt the dogs.

In 2009, Ronning sued that organization and the county in a separate lawsuit. District Judge Gregory R. Todd threw out the case, a ruling that was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court.

Ronning is involved in at least two other lawsuits in Yellowstone County, court records show.

In one of those cases, which is pending, Ronning is suing Heather Houlahan, a Pennsylvania dog trainer who worked on the Kapsa case for the National English Shepherd Rescue organization.

Ronning claims Houlahan engaged in a “smear campaign” against her. Ronning is also represented by Honaker in that case. Yellowstone County is a third party involved in the case.

In another lawsuit filed in February, in which Ronning is representing herself, she claims her back was injured when her vehicle was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by Selma C. Matson in February 2011.

Ronning states she has “incurred, and will continue to incur, medical costs and expenses and has endured pain and suffering” because of Matson’s negligence.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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