Court vacates dog custody case

Larry Limpf

News Editor

A judgment of Sandusky County District Court 2 ordering the forfeiture of a Gibsonburg woman’s dogs to the county dog warden has been reversed and vacated on appeal.
The Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled that the district court was without jurisdiction when it sought to enforce a settlement between two women who were sharing custody of the three Chihuahua dogs.
The case stems from a July 2022 complaint filed by Connie Belcher in which she claimed she had lent her dogs to Darlene Ernsberger, also of Gibsonburg, while Belcher moved to another home but Ernsberger refused to return the dogs. Her complaint included a replevin request to recover the dogs.
In December 2022, the women agreed to a consent judgment in which Ernsberger would be considered the owner of the dogs; and the women would share custody and there would be exchanges each Sunday at 6 p.m.
Failure of either party to follow the agreement would result in the dogs being forfeited to the Sandusky County Humane Society or Sandusky County Dog Warden, according to the consent judgment.
After receiving complaints from the police department, dog warden, and humane society about the conduct of the women, the district court set a hearing for June 2023 to determine whether either or both violated the consent judgment.
During the hearing, the police chief and dog warden testified that the women had significant trouble with the exchanges, generating more than 50 complaints.
Consequently, the exchanges were moved to the police station where there was video surveillance. Both women admitted to arguments and occasional threats during the exchanges but blamed each other, according to court records.
Following the hearing, the district court found that the women failed to follow the consent judgment entry and ordered the dogs be forfeited to the dog warden.
Belcher then filed her appeal.
In its ruling, the appeals court noted that the district court set the hearing after receiving complaints from the humane society, police department, and dog warden.
“The trial court, sua sponte, initiated its own hearing to determine whether the parties violated the consent judgment entry; this it was not permitted to do,” the appeals court wrote. “When the court entered the consent judgment entry on December 29, 2022, it disposed of the issues before the court, terminated the replevin claim, and ended the litigation. It then reopened the matter upon receiving complaints from the Gibsonburg chief of police and the Sandusky County Dog Warden.
“However, it has been long and well established that it is the duty of every judicial tribunal to decide actual controversies between parties legitimately affected by specific facts and render judgments which can be carried into effect.”
The police chief and dog warden were not parties to the litigation and had no standing to enforce the consent judgment entered into between Belcher and Ernsberger, according to the appeals court.
“Therefore, the trial court erred and was without jurisdiction when it sua sponte reopened the matter and found that the parties violated the terms of the settlement agreement where no separate action for breach of contract or motion to enforce the agreement had been filed,” the court wrote.


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