Southfield pet shop owner, animal activist group battle in court

By: Jessica Strachan | Southfield Sun | Published April 16, 2014

SOUTHFIELD — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan hopes an Oakland County judge will throw out a Southfield pet store owner’s lawsuit aimed at shutting down recent protests and advocacy against the shop by a local group of animal welfare activists.

Woof Woof Puppies & Boutique, located at 29555 Northwestern Highway, has been the stomping grounds for Puppy Mill Awareness of Southeast Michigan since 2011, and in January of this year, Woof Woof owner Joanna Yousif Francis filed a lawsuit against the group, alleging cyberstalking and intimidation, among other damages.

Harvey Altus, attorney for Francis, says the group has “crossed the line” protesting by saying things about Francis and the boutique that are not factual.

“There’s no one more supportive of First Amendment rights than me, but you just can’t say things that aren’t true,” he said.

The ACLU hopes that the case will be thrown out by Judge Phyllis McMillen at the May 21 hearing, calling it a SLAPP suit, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation.

“Lawsuits cannot be used as a tool to thwart the free speech rights of protesters who contribute to a debate on important social and political issues,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy director, in a press release. “After all, the First Amendment gives us all the most powerful tool to address those with whom we disagree: our own voice in the debate.”

Puppy Mill Awareness of Southeast Michigan is a grassroots community group with a mission to raise public awareness about the commercial puppy-breeding industry and its effects on the health and welfare of dogs, according to its website. As part of its advocacy, the group holds demonstrations outside pet stores that sell commercially bred puppies, encouraging members of the public to adopt rescue pets rather than purchase puppies from a store.

According to a motion for summary disposition on behalf of the activists, filed with the Oakland County Clerk March 24, the debate between Francis and the activist group began in October 2011, but activities have happened as recently as last December. The court documents show that the plaintiff has eight claims in her suit: defamation, business defamation, cyberstalking and harassment, invasion of privacy/false light, ethnic intimidation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, attorney fees and costs of litigation, and concern of action/civil conspiracy.

According to the documents, the animal rights group has been picketing at the plaintiff’s location with signs, passing out literature and verbally telling potential customers not to become patrons at the business as “they engage in illegal activities, sell sick puppies, support ‘puppy mills’ that breed and sell sick and abused animals, and lie to the public about the breed and the characteristic of the puppies they sell.”

Altus said those things are not true and that the activist group has begun using intimidation, including making a caricature of an Arabic person hitting a camel over the head with a rifle. Since Francis is Chaldean, they believe it was a strategic move to personally attack her.

“That kind of thing is not tolerable,” he added.

Francis says that the group also initiated communication with a Walled Lake landlord she is working with for a second Woof Woof location, compelling the landlord not to lease the property.  She said the group falsely accused the shop of coming under investigation by the Southfield Police Department for animal cruelty in compelling Walled Lake city officials to deny her application to occupy the Walled Lake location.

The defense says that the debate is one of “public concern,” citing animal welfare and the commercial puppy-breeding industry, including the health and welfare of “designer” dogs and the consumers who buy them, court documents state.

“Defendant enters the debate with strong ethical convictions. Plaintiffs enter the debate as procurers, marketers and vendors of tiny puppies with big price tags,” the motion reads.

The ACLU representatives believe Francis has filed the lawsuit to end the debate before she opens a second puppy store, saying she wants to “sell puppies without having to answer questions about who/what is the source of the puppies, whether the breeders are licensed, and whether the puppies are too young, too small or too vulnerable to be sold.”