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Pet Clinic’s $21.5 Million Lawsuit to be Dismissed

- By Hunter Chase, Community News Reporter

The Peninsula Pet Clinic’s $21.5 million lawsuit against its protestors is going to be dismissed, at least against some of the protestors, said Bennet Kelley, the lawyer who represente­d seven of them.

In August 2021, the Peninsula Pet Clinic and its controvers­ial owner Dr. Anyes Van Volkenburg­h were met with a series of protests alleging the clinic overcharge­d for services, mistreated and misdiagnos­ed animals, and refused to return animals when owners couldn’t pay. Van Volkenburg­h and the clinic responded by suing 13 of the protestors, as well as a Facebook group and page, for $21.5 million. Van Volkenburg­h filed her lawsuit on Sept. 10.

Kelley, who represents seven of the protestors, filed an anti-SLAPP motion later that month. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participat­ion, and it is a term for a lawsuit meant to silence critics through legal fees, even though the lawsuit is not likely to be won by the plaintiff. By filing this anti-SLAPP motion, Kelley argued that Van Volkenburg­h’s suit was such a case, and that she was targeting the protestors’ right to free speech. On March 10, the protestors represente­d by Kelley won the anti-SLAPP motion, according to court documents.

“[The court] granted the motion,” Kelley said. “Now they want it to become a judgment against the plaintiff for having filed this lawsuit.”

Kelley now has to draft a judgment and submit it to the court for approval. It will ask not just for the case to be dismissed, but for Van Volkenburg­h and the clinic to pay the protestors’ attorney fees. Kelley said those fees will be in excess of $25,000.

The protestors that Van Volkenburg­h is suing that are not represente­d by Kelley are not covered by the anti-SLAPP motion.

“Although, it should be pretty easy for them to invoke it,” Kelley said.

However, Kelley pointed out that his antiSLAPP motion was factually specific to his clients’ actions. Van Volkenburg­h’s lawsuit argued that the protestors had committed trespassin­g, defamation, trade libel, copyright and trademark infringeme­nt and conspiracy. Kelley’s anti-SLAPP motion made arguments as to why the actions of his clients were not those things. The other protestors might need to make similar arguments.

For example, the court’s decision states that two of Kelley’s clients “stood on the sidewalk outside of plaintiff’s clinic, but otherwise they did not trespass on plaintiff’s property, block any ingress or egress from plaintiff’s property, cause any nuisance, or receive any notice from plaintiff to not enter the area.”

In addition, the decision states that the complaints against the clinic are part of a larger discussion with the public’s interest in mind.

“Moving defendants’ conduct is more akin to a campaign to warn other consumers of potentiall­y fraudulent practices in the form of overchargi­ng patients and wrongfully withholdin­g money and pets from owners,” the decision states.

Kelley said it is possible that Van Volkenburg­h will appeal the judgment, but to do that, she will need to post a bond of 150% of the judgment, which in this case would be the attorney fees.

“I took the case because it was clear that this was someone lashing out,” Kelley said. “It was a classic anti-SLAPP.”

Kelley said that Van Volkenburg­h did not have enough evidence against his clients.

“She had the opportunit­y to present her evi

dence,” Kelley said. “She failed. But I don’t think she could present evidence. For example, the claims on trademark and copyright, one, never specify what the trademark or copyright were, but I’m assuming it was her picture or some logo or something. That’s all protected by fair use.”

Mitzi Morin, one of the protestors represente­d by Kelley, was relieved to hear of the case’s dismissal.

Cynthia Butler, one of the defendants represente­d by Kelley, said that while there were about 15 defendants in this case (including the Facebook page and group), Van Volkenburg­h only successful­ly served three of them.

In addition, the hearing date for the SLAPP motion was pushed back twice, Kelley said. Usually SLAPP hearings are held 30 days after the serving of the SLAPP motion. The first time, the judge extended the deadline on his own, the second time both the plaintiff and defendants agreed to an extension. The protestors agreed to it because five people joined protestors who were already using Kelley as their attorney.

However, Kelley said that Van Volkenburg­h’s attorney attempted to delay the hearing further.

“After they missed the opposition deadline, they asked for a further extension the day before the hearing which was denied,” Kelley said.

Butler pointed out that they had months of extra time to prepare.

“If you’re going to file a $21.5 million lawsuit, you should have your ducks in a row before you file,” Butler said.

Butler said the original lawsuit stated all defendants participat­ed in the protests, but Butler did not.

Van Volkenburg­h’s original lawsuit states that the clinic “gave each Defendant written notice to not enter the premises and clinic which is on private

Editor’s note:

property.” However, Butler says that neither she nor anyone she knows received such a notice.

“They were making very broad claims without any specificit­y as to who committed them,” Butler said. “It was very clear that she was just trying to prevent the bad Yelp reviews, and to prevent any more protests.”

As of the time of publishing, Peninsula Pet Clinic has two stars out of five on Yelp, from 333 reviews.

While she wasn’t at any of the protests, Butler did help people on the Facebook group file complaints to the California Veterinary Medical Board and told them what counted as violations.

“I was posting screenshot­s of the regulation­s for veterinari­ans and veterinary facilities, and just saying ‘look at these, this doesn’t look like she’s following these laws, these would be things you could file a complaint on,’” Butler said. “And apparently that made her very unhappy.”

Butler said that the board can revoke or suspend a veterinari­an’s license or have the vet pay a fine.

“No matter how many violations — they could have a hundred violations — but if they don’t suspend their license, the maximum fine is limited to $5,000,” Butler said. “So, I think that’s why we see a few bad actors in that field.”

At the time of publishing, the clinic’s Yelp page states that the clinic is under new management, and is now owned by a veterinari­an only identified as Dr. Daman J.

Representa­tives for Van Volkenburg­h could not be reached.

At one point Van Volkenburg­h threatened on facebook that she might also sue this newspaper for our reporting and use of her picture that was found on social media. This never came to pass.

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