Acting A.G. Underwood Announces Lawsuit To Shut Down Pet Store Chain, Alleging Improper Care Of Puppies And Widespread Fraud And Deception

News from the New York Attorney General's Office

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 16, 2018

Attorney General’s Press Office / 212-416-8060
nyag.pressoffice@ag.ny.gov
 

ACTING A.G. UNDERWOOD ANNOUNCES LAWSUIT TO SHUT DOWN PET STORE CHAIN, ALLEGING IMPROPER CARE OF PUPPIES AND WIDESPREAD FRAUD AND DECEPTION 

Lawsuit Alleges The Pet Zone Illegally Sold Puppies Without Necessary Veterinarian Exams, Improperly Medicated Puppies, and Destroyed and Falsified Records To Avoid Detection 

Judge Bars Company From Obtaining Any New Dogs For Sale While Lawsuit Is Pending

Lawsuit Seeks to Permanently Bar Company From Selling Live Animals, as well as Penalties and Consumer Restitution

WATERTOWN – Acting Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood today announced a lawsuit against Bell Pet Company, LLC and its owners, Theodore and Sheila Bell, who operate a chain of pet stores with locations in Watertown, Albany, Poughkeepsie, and Queensbury, known as The Pet Zone. The lawsuit alleges that The Pet Zone has sold many puppies to consumers without first having the dogs examined by a veterinarian as required by law, engaged in persistent fraud by failing to notify consumers when the puppy they purchase received necessary pre-sale medical treatment, and violated the Pet Lemon Law by failing to provide timely reimbursement for veterinarian expenses consumers incurred after purchasing a sick dog from the stores.

Following an investigation by the Attorney General’s office, Supreme Court Justice James P. McClusky issued a temporary restraining order today prohibiting The Pet Zone from obtaining any new dogs for sale and placing additional oversight on the sale of puppies currently in their stores while the lawsuit is pending. Additionally, Acting Attorney General Underwood seeks to permanently bar The Pet Zone and its owners from ever operating a business that sells live animals in New York, as well as to obtain restitution for aggrieved consumers and significant penalties.

“Pet dealers have a legal and moral responsibility to provide proper treatment to the animals in their care, and consumers deserve to have confidence that the pets they purchase are certifiably healthy,” said Acting Attorney General Underwood. “Our office is committed to upholding these legal protections for animals and consumers alike, and we won’t hesitate to hold companies to account if try to deceive New Yorkers.”

Based upon the evidence submitted to the court, Justice McClusky issued a temporary restraining order against The Pet Zone today. This evidence included sworn statements from a former store manager and four former store employees, sworn statements from ten consumers, and several inspection reports citing violations. Pursuant to the order, The Pet Zone is prohibited from obtaining any puppies that are not already in their possession for sale while the lawsuit is pending. The stores will be permitted to sell the puppies already in their stores. However, Justice McClusky’s order requires The Pet Zone to provide the court and the Attorney General’s office with sworn statements and documentation attesting under penalty of contempt that the puppies sold were properly examined and medications were properly disclosed to the consumers.

The lawsuit alleges that The Pet Zone engaged in numerous deceptive business practices and violated multiple laws designed to ensure that animals sold by pet dealers are healthy, including that:

  • The Pet Zone sold dozens, if not hundreds of puppies to consumers without first having them examined by a veterinarian and certified as fit for sale, as required by law.
  • When puppies exhibited signs of illness while in the store, employees routinely administered controlled antibiotics to them without first consulting with a veterinarian. Later, when the store veterinarian made a routine visit, the employees would conceal from the veterinarian that the puppy had been medicated.
  • To avoid detection by its store veterinarians and New York State regulators, The Pet Zone routinely falsified and destroyed documentation that showed when a puppy was sold without an examination or when a puppy had received nonprescribed medication.
  • Although state law requires pet dealers to provide a full history of medical treatments a puppy has received before the time of sale, The Pet Zone specifically instructed its employees not to disclose to consumers when the puppy they were purchasing had received medication or other treatment for illness.
  • After selling a puppy that was thereafter certified as “unfit” for sale by the consumers’ veterinarian, The Pet Zone effectively denied customers their rights under the Pet Lemon Law to reimbursement of veterinarian bills by allegedly deceiving them about their options and forcing them to file warranty claims with a third party vendor. Although the Pet Lemon Law requires the pet dealer to reimburse those costs within ten days, consumers often never received reimbursement or received it from the warranty company many months later.
  • In an effort to increase sales, The Pet Zone at times financed puppy sales through two companies known as WAGS Lending and Nextep Funding. Consumers who used these financing companies were given multiple types of documentation showing their ownership or “parentage” of the puppy they purchased. However, The Pet Zone employees allegedly failed to adequately inform consumers that these financing agreements were actually styled as “leases,” and therefore the customer would not actually own their family pet until payment of the full contract plus additional undisclosed fees, which usually totaled more than twice the original cash purchase-price of the puppy. Many consumers who financed their purchase also paid an additional fee that cash and credit customers did not pay for the warranty used by The Pet Zone to circumvent the Pet Lemon Law.
  • The Pet Zone also allegedly engaged in several deceptive business practices to raise the cost of the sale to consumers. The stores forced consumers to pay $99.95 supposedly for enrollment in a “PetKey” system which purportedly includes the puppy’s health and microchip information. However, employees were specifically told not to include medication other than routine vaccinations and de-wormers to this pet health history, depriving the consumer of the value of the product, which they could not decline. Additionally, at times consumers were charged the wrong amount for the product and it was misidentified on documentation as an “AKC Protection Bundle,” falsely leading consumers to believe that their puppies were registered with the American Kennel Club.

After receiving numerous complaints from the public, the Attorney General’s office issued a cease and desist letter to The Pet Zone in July 2017 demanding that they stop violating the Pet Lemon Law. This law is designed to safeguard the public and ensure the humane treatment of dogs and cats by requiring pet dealers to guarantee the good health of the animals they sell. When pet dealers sell a pet that a veterinarian certifies was “unfit for sale” within 14 days of the purchase, the consumer is entitled to a refund, reimbursement for reasonable veterinarian expenses up to the cost of the pet, or a replacement animal. The law requires dealers to provide the refund or reimbursement within ten business days of receiving the certification.

Following the cease and desist letter, further investigation revealed the additional and more egregious illegal and deceptive conduct alleged by the Attorney General’s office. Due to the severity of the violations, Acting Attorney General Underwood is asking the court to permanently bar The Pet Zone, and its owners, from ever operating a business in New York that sells live animals, as well as order the company to pay restitution to aggrieved consumers and significant penalties. The Acting Attorney General thanks the members of the Jefferson County Animal Cruelty Task Force for their support and assistance in this case.

The investigation was conducted by Investigator Chad Shelmidine. The Investigations Division is led by Chief Investigator Dominick Zarrella.

This case is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Alicia M. Lendon, under the supervision of Assistant Attorney General In Charge Deanna R. Nelson, both of the Watertown Regional Office. The Division of Regional Affairs is led by Executive Deputy Attorney General Marty Mack.

Groups audience: