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Bramblett v. Habersham County

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

June 21, 2018

BRAMBLETT et al.
v.
HABERSHAM COUNTY.

          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          REESE, JUDGE.

         Teresa and Clarence Bramblett appeal from an order granting a petition for recoupment of costs filed by Habersham County (the "County"), pursuant to OCGA § 4-11-9.8, and a separate order directing the Brambletts, in part, to pay $69, 282.85 into the court registry in connection with the boarding, treatment, and care of 29 dogs that the Brambletts refused to surrender after the County seized over 400 animals from their property. For the reasons set forth, infra, we affirm.

         The County filed a petition for recoupment of costs in June 2017, alleging that, in April 2017, "over 400 animals were removed from [the Brambletts'] property, [and] the [Brambletts] were each charged with 340 violations of OCGA § 16-12-4 (B)[, ] Cruelty to Animals[.]" The petition identified twenty-two dogs that were found living in the Brambletts' home and eight dogs that were found running loose on the property. The Habersham County Department of Animal Care & Control ("HCACC") "impounded all animals on the property[, ]" and "[c]harges of neglect were filed on all but one of the animals which ha[d] not been surrendered." Thus, the County sought recoupment of its costs for the care of the 29 animals "directly involved with the cruelty charges" that had not been surrendered (the "subject animals").

         After a hearing, at which HCACC director Madison Hawkins testified, the court found that the County was authorized to impound the subject animals and scheduled a second "hearing to consider evidence related solely to the actual costs incurred by the [C]ounty in providing care for the [subject animals]." After again hearing testimony from Hawkins at the second hearing, the court ordered the Brambletts to pay into the court registry $69, 282.85, "an amount sufficient to cover costs of impoundment and care for a period beginning as of the date of impoundment and ending 30 days after the date of the order ($49[, ]903.20 $7[, ]211.45 $3[, ]851.00 $8[, ]317.20 = $69, 282.85)[.]"

         In reaching these figures, the court multiplied the number of days the dogs had been in the County's custody (180) by the number of dogs (29) and the cost per dog per day ($9.56). The court estimated this daily cost based on the HCACC's annual budgeted expenses and the maximum number of dogs (60) that Hawkins testified could be housed at the shelter. The court found that the County had presented evidence of additional costs of $7, 211.45 incurred in housing the subject animals at a separate facility and of $3, 851 for "provid[ing] cages, air conditioning, maintenance items and heartworm and flea prevention medicine" for the subject animals. The court further ordered the Brambletts to deposit $8, 317.20, "(an amount equal to the portion of the original amount attributable to the first 30 days after the date of the initial order) every 30 days thereafter until the owner relinquishe[d] his/her right[s] to the animal(s) or until final disposition of this case[.]" The Brambletts appeal.

[T]he interpretation of a statute is a question of law, which is reviewed de novo on appeal. Moreover, when only a question of law is at issue, . . . we owe no deference to the trial court's ruling and apply the 'plain legal error' standard of review. In reviewing the statutes at issue in this appeal, we are mindful that in considering the meaning of a statute, our charge as an appellate court is to presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant. Toward that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, consider the text contextually, read the text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would, and seek to avoid a construction that makes some language mere surplusage. Simply put, when the language of a statute is plain and susceptible of only one natural and reasonable construction, courts must construe the statute accordingly.[1]

         With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Brambletts' specific claims of error.

         1. The Brambletts argue that the trial court erred in granting the County's petition without first demanding that the County provide notice to the Brambletts pursuant to OCGA § 4-11-9.4, which would have allowed the Brambletts the opportunity to request a hearing pursuant to OCGA § 4-11-9.5.

         In 2016, the General Assembly amended the Georgia Animal Protection Act (the "Act")[2] "to create a process for a petition for recoupment of expenses of impoundment[ and] to provide for procedures regarding same[.]"[3] To that end, the General Assembly added OCGA § 4-11-9.8, "Recoupment of expenses of impoundment; process."[4] Section 4-11-9.8 (a) provides:

         Any agency impounding one or more animals as part of any investigation of a violation of Code Section 4-11-9.2, 16-12-4, or 16-12-37, or otherwise providing care for one or more animals impounded pursuant to this article, may file a petition in a court of competent jurisdiction to hear civil cases requesting the court to require the owner of the animal or animals to pay into the registry of such court funds in an amount sufficient to secure payment of all anticipated costs of impoundment and care.

         Subsections (b) and (c) set forth the required contents of the petition and the manner of service of the petition. Subsection (d) (1) provides in part that the court "shall" set a hearing on the petition between ten and fifteen business days after the court's receipt of return of service of process.

         The petition in this case, filed pursuant to OCGA § 4-11-9.8, specifically alleged that the Brambletts "were each charged with 340 violations of OCGA § 16-12-4 (B)" and that "[c]harges of neglect [had been] filed on all but one of the animals which ha[d] not been surrendered." As quoted above, OCGA § 4-11-9.8 (a) specifically allows an agency to file a recoupment petition when the agency is "impounding one or more animals ...


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