OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — A grieving Overland Park man is in the midst of a cross-country court battle to get his late wife’s beloved service dog back.
The legal battle comes just months after Paul Marinsky's wife, Brittani, died after a battle with stomach cancer.
During the months after her death, Paul found comfort in the presence of Brittani’s service dog, Tootsie.
“She just loved that dog, and Tootsie loved her,” he said.
Brittani, who lived with a chronic illness, got Tootsie in May 2019 from Starfleet Service Dogs, a Maryland-based organization.
The sheep-a-doodle was just 1 year old when the Marinskys got her. Paul said Brittani invested a lot of time in training the young dog.
“If her heart was acting up or something, Tootsie could alert her among other things we trained her to do,” he said.
The Marinskys paid Starfleet about $140 per month for a wellness plan for Tootsie. Paul said they spent thousands on training and on care for Tootsie with Starfleet during the two years they had her.
To the Marinskys, she was more than a service dog; she was a member of the family.
That’s why, before she died last August, Brittani made Paul promise he would keep Tootsie.
“The one thing that Brittani wanted before she passed was she wanted to know what’s going to happen to Tootsie,” Paul said through tears. “I promised her we’d do everything we can to keep her home, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Paul told the 41 Action News I-Team that he had multiple conversations with Starfleet about honoring his wife’s dying wish.
“I said, "What do I need to keep Tootsie?' I offered to pay up to $6,000,” he said.
Starfleet’s CEO wrote in one text response that she “couldn’t promise anything” and that Tootsie was “meant to be a service dog.” However, she added that they could talk about it more.
Then, in November 2020, Paul received a message that Starfleet was coming to take Tootsie.
“Starfleet said they’d send someone out to pick her up on December 5 or 12, whichever works for you,” Paul said.
He responded, telling Starfleet to hold off, because his attorney was going to review the situation. He said he would be in touch.
But in late November, Starfleet took Tootsie.
“I took her to a vet appointment, and they had sent somebody from Iowa to pick her up,” Paul said.
The vet released Tootsie to Starfleet, because the organization’s name was on the account.
Paul’s attorney immediately filed a lawsuit in Iowa to get Tootsie back.
“The question is who owns Tootsie? Which, quite clearly, the answer is Mr. Marinsky,” Katie Barnett, his attorney, said.
Barnett and her colleagues argued in court proceedings in Iowa that Paul and his wife “provided complete care for Tootsie, including shelter, food, training, love and companionship.”
Barnett also argued that Starfleet’s contracts are riddled with ambiguities.
For example, one liability form states Starfleet is “willing to accept responsibility for graduated service dogs in the event of a graduate’s death.”
“If there’s an option to take an animal back, then that means there was an issue with ownership to begin with," Barnett said. "It means that they didn’t intend to keep the animal."
Starfleet did not respond to a request for comment, and an attorney for Starfleet Service Dogs also declined to comment. However, court records shine light on the organization’s argument.
Starfleet claims Paul wasn’t taking proper care of Tootsie and that the sheep-a-doodle is “owned in perpetuity by Starfleet.”
The organization says Tootsie was not adopted by the Marinskys.
In its filing, Starfleet also produced a different liability contract signed by Brittani. It says that the dog "must be returned" upon death of the handler.
Barnett’s argument rests, in part, on the varying and vague language in the Starfleet agreements.
“There were so many changes," she said. "There are so many contracts out there."
The judge in Iowa dismissed the case after learning Starfleet moved Tootsie, saying that the court no longer had jurisdiction.
“Where’s Tootsie? We’re chasing her all over the country trying to get her back here," Barnett said. "And it’s important, because if there’s going to be any legal battle, back here is where it needs to be."
Paul vows he will keep fighting to bring Tootsie home. His attorneys filed a new lawsuit in Maryland, where Starfleet is based.
He will go to court later this week in the hopes of honoring his wife’s dying wish.
“I like to think she’d be proud of me for taking up this fight, not only for Tootsie, but for her,” Paul said.
Supporters started a GoFundMe page to help Paul cover the costs of his legal fight.
To find out how other organizations handle situations like these, the 41 Action News I-Team reached out to Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of service dog nonprofits that sets the worldwide standards for assistance-dog programs.
Its executive director said there are no industry standards for what happens when a handler dies. Decisions and contracts vary by organization.
However, nine organizations nationwide told the I-Team they let the family keep the service dog if the client dies. In those cases, the dog retires as a service dog and becomes a pet.
"The dog has become a member of the family, and we do not feel it is in the best interest of the dog or the family to remove the animal from the home," one group wrote in an email.
Assistance Dogs International also said longtime programs typically don't charge clients for service dogs, and it has not heard of an organization charging a monthly fee for one.
Starfleet is not a member of Assistance Dogs International, its representative said.
Consumer tips for finding a service dog
The 41 Action News I-Team also spoke with the National Education for Assistance Dog Services, or NEADS, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that has been training service dogs since 1976, to gather tips for people interested in applying for a service dog.
"Every time there seems to be a vulnerable population, and in our case, people with disabilities, there's someone who wants to take advantage of them," NEADS Director of Development Cathy Zemaitis said of scams surrounding service dogs. "It's so disheartening."
However, there are actions consumers can take to protect themselves.
Zemaitis and Audrey Trieschman, NEADS Manager of Communications, suggested taking the following steps:
- Take time to understand what a service dog is
- According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are defined as "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities;"
- The ADA also says dogs whose "sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support" don't qualify as service animals under the law.
- Search for organizations that are members of Assistance Dogs International
- According to NEADS, Assitance Dogs International is the leading authority in the industry;
- "They set the standards, and the member organizations have to go through quite rigorous certification, requalification every five years," Trieschman said.
- Understand your ability to afford, live with and care for a dog
- It costs between $1,500 and $3,000 annually;
- Service dog handlers must be prepared to regularly practice learned behaviors with their partner animals.
- Be aware of red flags
- These include organizations that claim they can train a pet to be a service animal or those that say they will send a puppy and show you how to train it;
- Be wary of groups that promise to send a dog immediately. A reputable nonprofit's application and matching process takes time.
- Read the fine print on any contract
- NEADS says it's not necessarily a red flag if a service dog group charges a client. However, it's important to understand the details of any financial obligations included in a contract;
- Check to see if the paperwork specifies who owns the dog.
Trieschman also shared the following questions to ask a service dog organization:
- Will I be receiving a fully-trained dog whose task work will mitigate symptoms of my disability?
- Will I be taught to work with my service dog?
- What is the dog's medical and life history?
- Will trainers be available for help after the match?
- What are the qualifications of the trainers?
- Where do the dogs come from? Are they bred for this purpose or are they rescue animals?
- How long has the organization been in existence? How many dogs has it trained?