It started as a dispute over the custody of Sandy Marie and Coco Ree, two dogs brought to Montgomery County last year after being rescued from a suburb of New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
But the attorneys involved in the spiraling fight are dueling about more than ownership of the female shepherds. It has become a battle over the legal complexities of rescuing pets in disaster zones, disparities in social class and the incendiary effect grass-root campaigns waged on the Internet can have on people's lives.
On one side is Belinda Sumrall, a New Orleans evacuee who left her pets behind. On the other are the Montgomery County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and two of its volunteers.
In the middle are the dogs' new owners, who adopted them from the society and now might have to return them to Sumrall.
A judge in Louisiana has ordered the society to return the dogs to Sumrall. The agency and the two volunteers have struck back with a defamation lawsuit in Maryland, in which they contend that the Louisiana attorney representing Sumrall has unfairly characterized them as elitist thieves who took advantage of Katrina victims.
The new owners are not a party in either suit, and their identities are not public.
When Katrina hit nearly a year ago, Kim Deserio of Gaithersburg, a federal government lawyer, traveled to Louisiana to help rescue abandoned pets. She found Sandy Marie and Coco Ree on the streets of Arabi in St. Bernard Parish.
Sumrall had left the dogs when fleeing the storm and resettled in Texas. Attempts to locate her to comment for this article were unsuccessful.
Parish officials gave Deserio permission to take the dogs to Maryland so they could be placed in foster care. The parish required the SPCA to post photographs of them with contact information on a Web site used by many Katrina evacuees to find their missing pets.
Under the agreement, the animals would become the property of the Montgomery SPCA if their owners hadn't come forward by Nov. 1.
Sumrall posted on other Web sites about her missing pets but received no response, she said in court documents. A volunteer helping her look for them later discovered that they had been taken to Maryland.
The dogs, renamed Andi and Foxy by their caretakers in Montgomery, were treated for heartworm. One had a mass on her salivary gland that required expensive surgery, according to the society.
They were among the roughly 15,000 pets rescued in the Gulf Coast after the hurricane hit.
"We had two, three, four hundred animals being rescued every day," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. "If we hadn't exported them, we would have had to suspend the operation."
Between 25 and 30 percent of the rescued pets were reunited with their owners, but most were adopted, Pacelle said.
Several disputes in court
Several ownership disputes have wound up in court, and their outcomes will likely set precedents.
"There are many cases around the country, and they are going in many different ways," said Marie Riccio Wisner, who represents the Montgomery SPCA and its volunteers in the Louisiana case. Her clients did everything by the book and worked tirelessly to save endangered pets, Wisner said. "My main concern is that we on the Gulf Coast will be confronted with another hurricane. I don't think that we can bite the hand that feeds us."
Weeks after Sandy Marie and Coco Ree were adopted, Kathryn S. Bloomfield, a Shreveport attorney, contacted the Montgomery SPCA, saying that her client, Sumrall, wanted the dogs back. Bloomfield was told that they had a new home.
"We will not be returning the dogs to Ms. Sumrall, but wish her the best in her transition to a new life," Deserio wrote in a Dec. 17 e-mail, excerpts of which were posted on Bloomfield's blog -- Maddogs World -- under the headline: "Proof of the Callous Disregard of MCSPCA and Kim Deserio."
Bloomfield argued that Montgomery SPCA officials had not made an effort to find the dogs' owner before putting them up for adoption.
"It is again requested that you contact me immediately to arrange for the transport of Ms. Sumrall's pets home to her," Bloomfield wrote in a Dec. 28 e-mail to Deserio, according to court records. "Your continued refusal to do so makes no sense to us or to any of the agencies duly involved with the pet rescue efforts."
Days later, Bloomfield took a softer stance.
"Please contact me to make arrangements for the amicable return of Ms. Sumrall's pets to her," she wrote in a Jan. 7 e-mail to Dawn Wilcox, another society volunteer. "She misses them terribly and has just suffered terribly. Being denied her two beloved pets, Sandy Marie and Coco Ree, the latter of which was a wedding gift in honor of her wedding last year, simply is not the right thing to do."
Deserio and Wilcox allege in the defamation lawsuit that Bloomfield began lambasting Deserio and other Montgomery SPCA officials in online postings.
Bloomfield did not return phone messages left at her home and office. Her attorney, Edward S. Wisneski, said the allegations are baseless but would not respond to them in detail. He would not say whether Bloomfield disputes writing some of the postings attributed to her in the suit.
According to the defamation suit, Bloomfield posted a profanity-laced poem aimed at Deserio on at least two Web sites. The poem and other items allegedly posted by Bloomfield on Web sites were attached to the defamation complaint.
The poem warned that "no rich [expletive] who don't do Nuthin right is gonna take my dogs without a fight."
The blog also featured a letter from Sumrall.
"I don't know if you realize how bad you're hurting me by not giving me my dogs back," Sumrall wrote in the undated posting. "You make the holidays hard for me cause I always by my dogs something for christmas. This year, I couldn't cause of people like you who have my babies."
Deserio and Wilcox began receiving "threatening and disturbing communications" from people who were following the case on the blogosphere, they allege in the defamation lawsuit. Their attorney in that case would not comment, nor would Wilcox. Deserio did not respond to a phone message.
‘Get the lawyers out of it’
Bloomfield obtained a temporary restraining order Jan. 31 in which a Louisiana judge ordered officials from the Montgomery SPCA to return the dogs to Sumrall and threatened to fine it $1,000 for each day it disobeyed the order.
The defendants weren't properly notified and didn't get a chance to defend their position, Wisner said. They believe that the petition for the restraining order misstates the facts.
Wisner said the easiest way to resolve the case will likely be to have the original and new owners of the dogs to talk to each other.
"We've got to get the lawyers out of it," she said.