A month after Pet Works shut down at Grossmont Center in the wake of 22 months of puppy mill protests, the mall sued owner Richard Fuller for $800,000 and attorney fees to recover money owed on its 12-year lease.
Then on March 1, alleging that Grossmont Center didn’t protect the pet store from the weekly protests, Fuller countersued for $400,000.
Court documents in the civil case reveal that Fuller, an 82-year-old San Diego resident, blamed the protests led by Sydney Cicourel as causing loss of revenue and eventually the shutdown—even though Fuller said in mid-December that he was closing mainly thanks to the poor economy.
In fact, Fuller modified his lease in January 2010 to reflect his lower income as a result of the protests, says a court filing by his attorney, Philip Dyson of La Mesa.
“The decrease in rent was not able to make up for the severe lost profits and revenues Fuller was experiencing due to the protesters,” Dyson wrote in a cross complaint filed in East County Superior Court.
Dyson wrote that “the successful protests of the animal rights group”—known then as San Diego Stop Puppy Mills—robbed Pet Works of almost all sales.
“Fuller was forced, due to the breaches of the lease on the part of Grossmont Center, and due to ‘civil commotion’ … to shut and abandon the Pet Works store … and to stop paying rent under the lease,” Fuller said in a nine-page filing dated Feb. 24, 2011.
Grossmont Center—represented by Cynthia Stelzer of the San Diego firm Kimball, Tirey and St. John—originally sued Fuller on Jan. 12, a little over a month after Pet Works closed. The mall sued Fuller $400,000 for breach of lease and $400,000 for breach of lease guaranty. Attorney Stelzer also asked for costs of the suit and “reasonable attorneys’ fees.”
The mall, acting as landlord, leased 2,747 square feet of space near the shopping center’s south end in January 2003, signing a lease that was to expire in January 2015. The annual rent started at $59,000 but rose over time. Grossmont Center also charged Fuller (and his wife, Joanne) a “marketing assessment” of $5,494 a year.
Attorney Dyson denied the mall’s allegations in a Feb. 24 “answer” filing on behalf of Richard Fuller Inc.
In Dyson’s countersuit, he argued that Grossmont Center had agreed to keep the common area outside Pet Works in a “neat, clean and orderly condition” and that the mall had the “right at any time to exclude and restrain any person from the use or occupancy of the Common Area.”
As well, Dyson wrote, the mall promised to “provide security officers for the Common Area.”
Dyson said Fuller had the right to quit the lease if it couldn’t operate because of “civil commotion.”
But starting in early spring 2009, Dyson said, Pet Works became the target of picketing and protests alleging the store sold “puppy mill” dogs.
These protestors and picketers stood in front of the Pet Works store with banners and placards which dissuaded customers from buying pet supplies and animals. … The customers blocked the common sidewalk in front of the store and yelled at customers. … The protestors further left placards and signs against the windows … obscuring the puppies, kittens and other animals for sale … and further preventing patrons and customers from walking into the shop.”
Fuller immediately alerted mall management to the disturbances, Dyson wrote, saying security would give protesters written restrictions. But Dyson said security didn’t routinely meet the protesters.
On Sept. 18, 2010, Fuller wrote mall officials that if security didn’t clear the sidewalks of protesters, “Fuller would consider Grossmont Center in breach of lease,” Dyson wrote.
No trial has been set in the case assigned to Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil, according to court records. But many of Fuller’s allegations would be disputed—especially by Cicourel, whose group is now called Companion Animal Protection Society.
In a phone interview Thursday, Cicourel called the court arguments “ridiculous.” She said protests on private property, especially in shopping centers, won U.S. Supreme Court approval in a 1980 decision called Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins.
“We made efforts to never block the sidewalk—and did not block the view of the windows,” she said.
In fact, when she saw members of her weekly protest group harassing customers, “I removed them” and banished them from the group, she said.
Cicourel said she knew the fire codes and complied with Grossmont Center’s requests.
“The mall was very receptive to both of us [the store and protest group],” she said. “We always abided by what [mall security] said.”
Cicourel also reacted Thursday to news that La Mesa’s city attorney warned the City Council about “expensive and protracted litigation” if the city passed an ordinance similar to West Hollywood’s to restrict the animals pet stores can sell.
When told that city staff was instructed only to “monitor” the year-old West Hollywood law, Cicourel lashed out at the council.
She likened the action to events in Wisconsin and the move by Republicans lawmakers to pass an anti-union bill without public notice. She was upset that she hadn’t been notified of the report by City Attorney Glenn Sabine.
“If this is government by the people, you have to have the people present,” Cicourel said. “We didn’t have a chance to have a discussion with” city officials. “I am frustrated and disappointed.”
She blamed the council for being “pro-business,” and suggested “this was completely political” when it voted in mid-December to have city staff study an anti-puppy mill ordinance.
“I thought all along that they weren’t going to vote [for an ordinance],” she said. “I thought this was the plan all along.”
Meanwhile, Josh McClintock of El Cajon, one of the customers of Pet Works who gained notoriety with his sick Boston terrier Minne Moo, said in a phone interview Friday that he would be moving late this month to Seattle, where he’s found another job.
McClintock, a disabled Marine who served in Iraq, said he and his wife, Erin, had decided not to sue Fuller for veterinarian costs involved with Minnie Moo, who died Feb. 5 from what Cicourel’s group says were remnants of the dog’s puppy mill upbringing.
“I kind of want to let it rest,” he said. “My dog is gone.”
He said he’s grateful for the donations he’s received so far in the wake of a televised press conference outside the La Mesa police station Jan. 27, but also received a pledge from Cicourel to handle the balance of veterinarian costs.
Cicourel said she was waiting for other donations, but expected to donate between $2,000 and $2,300.
McClintock still misses Minnie Moo and “not hearing my puppy,” but will seek another therapy canine after he’s settled in Seattle.
“We’ll be rescuing another dog,” he said.