Shari LePage has accepted that the "mini boxer" she purchased for $1,300 eight years ago from a local puppy store that specializes in teacup and toy puppies now weighs 61 pounds — not the 12 to 15 pounds she was told it would.
The Davie resident has accepted that Misha the boxer now has debilitating arthritis because it needed to take adult medications as a puppy to treat the near-fatal pneumonia and collapsed lung it suffered within weeks of purchase.
And LePage has accepted that Misha still requires medication, regularly produces mucus and has trouble breathing to the extent that LePage sometimes stays up all night to monitor her.
But LePage will not accept the puppy store from which she purchased Misha — at the time a Pembroke Pines storefront called Wizard of Claws — continuing to engage in the same sort of business practices that she and well over 100 other customers throughout the country believe landed them with puppies that were unhealthy and, in some cases, died.
As part of a lawsuit that began more than six years ago, LePage and the Miami office of New York-based law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges filed a motion with the Broward County Circuit Court in early October claiming that the business' owner James Anderson and his wife, Gilda, with whom he runs the business, had violated a December 2009 settlement agreement and a May 2010 court order. The motion alleged that they had done so by on multiple occasions purchasing many of their puppies from sellers that had been written up by the USDA or that kept the animals in substandard conditions and by not consistently disclosing seller information to the Florida Attorney General's office and to customers.
The couple currently operates their business in an Oakland Park storefront that goes by the names Puppy Collection Inc. and Teacup Puppies Store, as well as through several websites, including TeacupPuppiesStore.com, PuppyBoutiqueStore.com and PuppiesforSaleSite.com. The websites feature photos of dogs wearing dresses and bows and sitting in teacups, and advertise that the store has sold to dozens of celebrities, among them Bruce Springsteen, Rosie O'Donnell, Jeff Gordon and the Osbourne family.
Roberto Stanziale, the Fort Lauderdale-based attorney representing store owner James Anderson, said his client and his wife, Gilda, were "getting picked on" and that they did not intentionally violate court orders.
He said he believed the Andersons' purchases from sellers with USDA violations were instances in which the USDA processed backdated inspection reports after the point of sale
He also noted that the Andersons have sold more than 5,000 puppies since the 2010 order, and said that, as with babies, "a certain number of them are going to be sick."
On Dec. 2, the first day of the evidentiary hearing, Stanziale expressed that his client was interested in settling the case.
Both parties have since agreed upon amendments to the 2009 settlement agreement that involve more stringent reporting requirements to the Florida Attorney General's Office, an increased ability for Weil, Gotshal & Manges to monitor the Andersons' compliance and greater disclosure of breeder information to consumers, according to Christine Deruelle, one of three Weil, Gotshal & Manges attorneys currently assigned to the case.
The Andersons have also agreed to pay "a six figure amount" that Deruelle said will be distributed to LePage and six other plantiffs involved in the case.
At press time, Deruelle said that the firm had not worked out the specifics as to how the money will be distributed.
"From our perspective and our clients' perspective, it is good news," Deruelle said of the amended settlement agreement.
Stanziale could not be reached for comment.
The Andersons' puppy-selling activity traces as far back as the late 1990s under at least 10 names, including Wizard of Claws Inc., Wizard of Cl'Oz Inc., Holiday Center Plaza Puppies, Top Puppies, Celebrity Kennels Inc., Dog Breeder Kennel Inc. and Puppies For Sale Inc., and through at least 50 websites, including WizardofClaws.com, CelebrityPuppies.com, PuppiesforSalebyNet.com, PuppyBoutique.com, PuppyCollection .com, Tea-cup-Puppies.com and Tiny-Puppies.com.
"They had websites that were set up that you would click on a link within it, and it would direct you to another website, so a lot of consumers were not sure of the entity with whom they were doing business," Deruelle said.
Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which has been handling the case pro bono from the start, first filed the case in June 2007 as a class-action lawsuit against Wizard of Claws, Gilda Anderson, who was the registered owner at the time, and her husband.
LePage and six others who had purchased puppies from the Andersons were the named plaintiffs.
According to court documents, they alleged that the Andersons had violated state laws by selling customers puppies from what are considered puppy mills — mass-breeding facilities with the sort of conditions that yield puppies with severe health problems and genetic defects — by lying to customers about where the puppies had originated and by refusing to compensate those who bought sick puppies.
With help from the Humane Society of the United States, the firm identified more than 100 customers from all over the country who reported purchasing puppies from the Andersons that became sick soon after purchase, which in several instances resulted in death.
They didn't need to look far. Numerous unhappy customers had submitted complaints to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, the Better Business Bureau of Southeast Florida, RipoffReport.com and other Internet forums about the Andersons and the various entities through which the couple had sold puppies. On multiple occasions throughout the years, customers had protested outside of the store, and one dissatisfied customer started the now-defunct website StopWizardofClaws.com.
But in May 2009, before the case was certified as a class-action suit, Gilda Anderson filed for bankruptcy for herself, and in June 2009, for the business. That December, the Andersons signed a settlement agreement. While LePage and the other named plaintiffs did not receive compensation for the veterinary expenses they incurred, the court sanctioned the Andersons to follow strict guidelines for at least the subsequent 10 years, should they resume their puppy-selling business.
They were prohibited from purchasing puppies from any seller that they knew or had reason to know kept the puppies in substandard conditions and, specifically, any that the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or state agency counterpart had written up within two years preceding sale. They could research this by referencing inspection reports available for licensed sellers through the USDA website. The couple was also ordered to file monthly reports with the Florida Attorney General's Office about the sellers from which they purchased puppies and to inform customers about the identity of each puppy's seller.
Within days of signing the settlement agreement, the Andersons returned to selling puppies.
Weil, Gotshal & Manges attorneys soon found that the Andersons were repeatedly failing to report to the Florida Attorney General's Office and provide seller information to customers. They filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement, and in June 2010, the court fined the Andersons $26,600 for "knowingly, willfully and flagrantly" violating Florida law and the agreement and imposed further sanctions, including periodic, unannounced inspections.
At that point, there had already been more than 20 lawsuits filed against the Andersons and their business. In 2003, they had been found guilty of six violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, including inadequate veterinary care and selling animals less than eight weeks old. Just three months after their 2009 settlement agreement with Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LePage and the other named plaintiffs, the Andersons settled with a similar agreement a lawsuit brought against them in June 2006 by the Florida Attorney General's Office. It alleged that the Andersons had violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act by misrepresenting to customers the source, pedigree and approximate adult size of puppies, some for which they did not have proper American Kennel Club registration or pedigrees, as claimed.
Prior to filing the second enforcement motion in October, Weil, Gotshal & Manges had conducted a yearlong investigation, with help from the Humane Society, that Deruelle said involved analyzing thousands of Florida Attorney General's Office records.
In the motion, the firm reported finding that, since the 2010 order, the Andersons have acquired puppies from at least 13 sellers whose USDA inspection reports show violations within the preceding two years and from 15 sellers that the couple knew or had reason to know kept their puppies in substandard conditions. In addition, the firm claimed that the Andersons have not consistently disclosed to customers seller information or to the Florida Attorney General's Office the name, contact information and USDA inspection reports for at least 20 sellers.
Deruelle said the firm is hopeful that the Andersons will conduct business in compliance with the terms of the amended settlement agreement, the original settlement agreement and the court's 2010 order.
"And if they don't, and we find out about it, then we will take action as necessary and appropriate at that time," she said.