A Minneapolis man who cared for his ex-girlfriend’s dog for years while she lived temporarily on the West Coast must return the pet to her over his objections, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in the canine custody dispute.
Dannielle Zephier is the rightful owner of Oliver, an 11½-year-old poodle and beagle mix, the court said in its ruling Monday on behalf of the plaintiff in her long-running battle with her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend.
“I hope I can see Oliver soon,” Zephier, 38, said Tuesday. “I am overjoyed by the court’s decision and that Oliver finally gets to come home.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, however, Oliver remains with Derrick Agate Jr. and Lee Ann Krueger in their apartment as they contemplate whether to take the case to the state Supreme Court.
Krueger said the defeat in court leaves her and Agate concerned that Zephier could soon knock on their door and demand they surrender Oliver.
“Oli, he’s been my dog for seven years,” the 37-year-old Krueger said. “We’ve taken care and done everything for him.
“It’s hard to think about” the prospect of handing him over to Zephier. “He’s part of the family … He’s my little baby.”
Zephier bought Oliver from a breeder as a pup in 2008 and moved to California for school in 2013 without the dog, because her housing wouldn’t allow pets. Agate dated Zephier for about two years and the two remained friendly after the relationship ended. He agreed to take Oliver during her absence. Zephier returned to the Twin Cities to retrieve Oliver in October 2017, but he refused to give up the dog that’s been in his care for years.
She went to conciliation court, where she was awarded money but not Oliver, and then lost in her pursuit to reclaim the dog in Hennepin County District Court.
It was on to the appeals court, where a three-judge panel ruled for Zephier because Agate failed to provide her notice that he wanted to claim Oliver as abandoned property.
“Agate was required [by law] to give Zephier notice that she abandoned Oliver and that ownership would transfer to him if she did not reclaim Oliver within 30 days,” the appeals court decision read.
Attorney Steve Buterin, who argued the appeal on behalf of Zephier, said the District Court trial record was clear that Zephier “was actively involved in Oliver’s life,” whether by paying veterinary bills, traveling back to Minnesota for visits or buying him food and toys.
At the same time, Buterin said, Agate admitted during the trial that he never considered Oliver abandoned by Zephier nor gave her notice of his intention to claim ownership.
Buterin emphasized that he and his client have no interest in any ugly face-to-face battle for Oliver’s return to Zephier.
“It’s not fair to call them right away and say, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” said Buterin, who said Zephier now lives close enough for a smooth reunion. “We’d certainly like to have a discussion to resolve the situation [to] be able to facilitate the transfer without much delay.”
Agate, 36, and Krueger could turn to the state Supreme Court in hopes of keeping Oliver, and their lawyer handling the appeal expressed a degree of confidence in such a move. There is no guarantee the state’s high court would take up the case.
“This is a ripe issue for the Supreme Court to hear,” said defense attorney Steven Moore, who is preparing to weigh options with his clients in what has been his first dog custody case in his 28 years as a lawyer. “It’s not the emotional issue of ownership of the dog.”
Krueger said Tuesday that legal arguments aside, life with Oliver tells her that he should remain with her and Agate.
“We just kind of bonded,” she said. “He makes friends in our apartment building. He knows all our neighbors.
“I can’t imagine life without him,” she said, at times pausing to collect her emotions. “It’s the first time I’ve had a dog choose me.”