A Bangor woman wants Maine’s highest court to give domestic partners custody rights to pets after a relationship ends.
Under Maine law, a judge may order married couples to share custody of companion animals, but not unmarried couples who are breaking up.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments in the Penobscot County case on Tuesday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.
Honey, a 4-year-old female lab/shepherd mix, is the pet in dispute and Jessica Sardina, 25, wants the dog to be able to spend time with her and Sardina’s two dogs, Murphy and Beasley.
She’s appealing a finding by District Court Judge Patrick Larson last fall that Kelvin Liriano, 25, of Old Town was the dog’s sole owner because his was the only signature on the adoption papers.
The judge also found that Liriano’s relationship with Sardina began a month after he adopted Honey.
Sardina disputes that. She claims Liriano moved into her Bangor apartment on Aug. 17, 2015, a month after he adopted Honey, but that their relationship began five months earlier.
Liriano and Sardina met on Tinder in July 2014 but did not start dating until the following year, she testified at the hearing before Larson on Sept. 17, 2018, at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.
“In the spring of 2015, he reached out to me again,” she said. “We had a sexual relationship at that point, which eventually developed into a romantic relationship that summer of 2015.”
It ended three years later when Sardina asked him to leave and not return, the brief filed on his behalf said. When he tried to collect his personal belongings, Liriano was prevented from taking Honey. He sued Sardina in Bangor District Court seeking to recover the dog and other personal property.
In finding for Liriano, the judge said that Maine law gave him no other option but to rule in his favor.
“I am sure you are a wonderful pet owner,” Larson told Sardina, according to a transcript included with her brief. “I’m sure you’ve done a great job with Honey. I’m sure you love her very much and I’m sure you would give her a wonderful home.
“But unfortunately, I am stuck with the laws of property,” the judge continued. “And you yourself said that on paper, he is the owner, and that’s really what I have to rely upon.”
Sardina’s attorney, Eugene Sullivan of Bangor, is asking the state’s high court to allow District Court judges to establish de facto rights to pets in a manner similar to how they establish that a person is a de facto parent to a child to whom he or she is not related biologically.
Companion animals should not be treated as property, Sullivan argued in his brief.
“A dog that greets you and plays with you and loves you is presently on the same level as an inanimate object, like a couch, a diploma or a blender,” he said. “We won’t see any of those objects on Christmas cards, but people across the country will put their companion animals on holiday cards to other family members and friends because they view their pets as part of their family. This is true for both married and unmarried couples.”
Liriano’s attorney, Jonathan Hunter of Bangor, disagreed in his brief. He said that there’s no legal precedent in Maine for what Sardina is asking the court to do.
“Ms. Sardina has not presented this court with any authority for the proposition that having sex with someone gives one rights to the other’s property,” Hunter wrote. “Nor has she presented any authority that the mere act of cohabitating with someone gives one rights in the other’s property acquired separately and prior to cohabitation.”
Hunter argued that the Legislature, not the courts, is the proper place to change the law.
“There is no doubt that, on an emotional level, a pet is very different from a couch or a blender,” he said in his brief. “So too is a prized family heirloom. Legally, however, they are all personal property and treated the same in most respects, and have been for hundreds of years.”
There is no timetable under which the justices must issue a decision.