OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — A grieving Overland Park man must now wait until later this month for a judge to decide if can get his deceased wife’s service dog back.
Paul Marinsky sued Starfleet Service Dogs, Inc. (SSDI) last month after the Maryland organization took his late wife’s service dog, Tootsie, against his wishes.
During a court hearing on Tuesday, SSDI admitted it took Tootsie to Iowa and said the Sheepadoodle is now in Maryland. SSDI also argued that because Tootsie is no longer in the Hawkeye State, Iowa does not have jurisdiction in the case.
Before making his ruling, Judge Brad McCall requested both parties submit additional briefings that outline their arguments and evidence in the case by Jan. 22.
“After that time, the Court will decide (1) whether Iowa has jurisdiction; and (2) whether Tootsie should be returned to Paul while this matter is pending,” said Jamie Hunter, Marinsky’s attorney in Iowa. “Tootsie has never lived in Maryland. It is our position that, at a minimum, Tootsie should return to her home with Paul in Kansas while this court process plays out.”
He added: “Tootsie is not simply a piece of property that should be passed from person to person across the country.”
As FOX4 first reported, this case centers on who owns Tootsie.
Marinsky said his wife, Brittani, suffered from debilitating chronic issues. She had Tootsie for nearly two years to help with her mobility. During that time, he said, his wife paid Starfleet $141 a month for a wellness plan and spent thousands of dollars on Tootsie’s training, care and other related expenses.
But Tootsie was much more than a valuable service dog, Marinsky said. She was a beloved member of his family.
“I absolutely love Tootsie,” he said. “And it was my wife’s dying wish that I keep Tootsie. She told me to do what I can to make sure that happens.”
Marinsky said he repeatedly told SSDI that he wanted to make Tootsie a permanent part of his family.
“I’m discussing what deal we can make so I can keep Tootsie,” he said. “I’m trying to ascertain what my options are. In mid-October, I specifically said: ‘What will be needed to keep Tootsie?’ I said I’m prepared to take over all costs and pay up to $5,000 or $6,000 to ensure she stays with me.”
SSDI, he said, didn’t reject his offers.
“Jenny (the CEO) said ‘I can’t promise anything on Tootsie. She’s meant to be a service dog, but I am willing to talk to you and am glad that she’s happy and with you,'” he said.
SSDI’s tone, however, soon changed.
In a surprising turn of events, Marinsky said he received a text message from SSDI stating that someone was coming on Dec. 5 to take Tootsie.
“I told them COVID was in full force, and we’re pretty much locked down,” he said. “I also told them not to send some random person and think they’re going to take the dog. It doesn’t work that way.”
He added: “I never outwardly told Starfleet that I’m not giving the dog back. I was trying to find an arrangement to keep her. I obviously want and desire to keep Tootsie.”
Those tensions turned into a legal battle in late November.
“I took Tootsie to the Banfield Pet Hospital (in Overland Park) because she had some ear issues,” Marinsky said. “After about an hour, the veterinarian came out and said that someone was here from Starfleet to take Tootsie, and they handed her over to him.
“The vet said it’s their policy to release the dog to the name on the account,” he added. “Even though we paid SSDI $141 a month for wellness plan and had taken Tootsie to Banfield for care, SSDI paid the vet bills and its name is on the account.”
Although shocked and angry, Marinsky said he didn’t want to create a scene in the store.
“I was concerned for Tootsie,” he said. “She was looking at me the whole time. I knelt down and told her that it’s going to OK; you’ll come home soon. The guy then walked out the door with her, and I haven’t seen her since.”
Marinsky learned SSDI took Tootsie to Iowa.
His attorneys immediately sued to move the case back to Kansas and prevent SSDI from harming Tootsie or taking her to another state.
The judge granted their emergency motion for temporary injunction and ordered SSDI not to destroy or harm Tootsie before Tuesday’s hearing on the case.
“Paul and Brittani owned and cared for Tootsie for nearly 2 years and even with Brittani’s passing, Paul is still the lawful owner of Tootsie,” attorney Katie Barnett told FOX4. “We are working tirelessly to expose the reckless actions by Starfleet and reunite Paul and his beloved dog.”
The court filings echo those sentiments.
“Plaintiff is still grieving from the passing of his wife on August 30, 2020,” Marinsky’s petition states. “Now his grief is compounded by the theft of the family’s dog.
“There also can be no meaningful dispute that the Defendants have any right to the possession of Tootsie,” the petition added. “Since adopting Tootsie, Plaintiff and his wife have provided complete care for her, including shelter, food, training, love, and companionship. Tootsie’s value to her owner, Plaintiff Paul Marinsky, is priceless.”
But SSDI disagreed.
“Tootsie is an Academy Dog and is owned in perpetuity by Starfleet,” the company argued in its response. “Plaintiff did not adopt Tootsie, and therefore does not own Tootsie. Plaintiff’s wife did not adopt Tootsie and does not own Tootsie.
SSDI also alleged that Marinsky committed theft and violated the contract by “failing to return Tootsie to Starfleet after the handler’s death.” The organization further alleged that Marinsky was “not taking proper care of Tootsie when he unlawfully retained her.”
He denied those allegations.
His attorney also argued that SSDI’s contract is ambiguous about ownership. She points to one document that states Starfleet is “willing to accept responsibility for graduated service dogs in the event of a graduate’s death or incapacity to provide proper care.”
“The key word in that sentence is willing,” Barnett said. “It’s ambiguous and inconsistent with other signed documents.”
But what do other organizations do with their service dogs after a client dies? Do they let the dog stay with the family?
“When a person passes away, the dog generally stays with the spouse or next of kin if they want,” Adam Mayer, marketing and fundraising director for KSDS Assistance Dogs told FOX4. “We generally do not keep the dog. The dog is, for all intent and purposes, their dog.”
“Once the dog is no longer a service dog, we transfer it over as a pet,” he added.
Mayer also said KSDS does not charge clients any fees for its service dogs.
“We’re a nonprofit organization,” he said. “We have fundraisers and donors who give funds to us as their donations to a nonprofit. We get our dogs to our people free of charge.”
FOX4 reached out to SSDI and its attorneys for comment. They have not responded to our questions. We also contacted Banfield and are still waiting for a reply.
In the meantime, Marinsky said he would fight as long as it takes to get Tootsie back.
“I’m in this for the long haul,” he said. “This is going to continue until I get her back. She is the last living memory I have of my wife.”