Toronto lawyer must return dog-napped boxer to ex-partner, judge rules

Lawyers Natalie Simpson and Michael Duboff each claimed ownership of three-year-old Layla

A Toronto lawyer must return a rescue dog to her former partner after a judge ruled he was the sole owner of the three-year-old boxer.

According to the recent ruling, Toronto lawyers Natalie Simpson and Michael Duboff had been together four years in their common-law relationship when they adopted rescue-puppy Layla from an agency in New York in 2018.

However, after the couple split and the dog settled full-time with Duboff, Simpson’s time with Layla became a matter of dispute, with things coming to a head on St. Clair Avenue in the fall of 2020.

According to Ontario Superior Court Justice Eugenia Papageorgiou’s decision, Simpson had not seen Layla for seven months when she spotted the dog being walked by someone she did not know – Duboff’s new girlfriend Julieta Mandelbaum.

“Natalie stopped her car, ran across the street and struck up a conversation with Juli. She then took Layla’s leash and ran across St. Clair Avenue to a car where one of her co-workers was parked. Juli telephoned Michael and followed Natalie, begging for her to return Layla but Natalie put Layla in the car and drove away,” the decision reads.

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Duboff initially called police, but the decision says they considered it a civil matter and did not want to become involved, so he launched the civil proceeding instead.

He has not seen Layla since, but Justice Papageorgiou ordered them to be reunited by July 21.

“I have great empathy for Natalie. She clearly loves Layla and is saddened by this situation. She may be comforted by the knowledge that Layla will be going to someone who loves her just as much,” the judge added.

Justice Papageorgiou explained in her ruling that the law still treats pets as personal property, despite being viewed by many people as a member of the family.

“The relevant question is ownership, not who wants the dog more or who has more love and affection for the dog, or even who would be the best owner,” she wrote.

Traditionally, Canadian courts have decided ownership based on who paid for the dog or any subsequent transactions that changed its status, but Justice Papageorgiou cited a more recent Ontario case which broadened the factors for judges to consider, including whether one of the parties brought the animal into the relationship, who took care of it, and who paid for expenses.

“Under either approach, I find that Michael is the lawful owner,” she concluded.

Justice Papageorgiou’s decision says Duboff was the driving force behind the adoption of a rescue dog, referencing communications in which Simpson suggested Layla would be his responsibility once they collected her, thanks in part to her work commitments.

Although Simpson underwent a criminal background check as part of the adoption process and her name appeared on some of the dog’s vet records, the adoption contract listed Duboff alone as the owner, with Simpson identified as a person living in the same household.

In addition, the judge found Duboff paid for the vast majority of Layla’s care and expenses after the adoption, and concluded that he was her primary caregiver because he was working from home.

Simpson argued that the couple made joint decisions about Layla’s care, citing emails and texts suggesting that the dog was jointly owned, including a message where Duboff wrote that he had “found a dog for you,” and an email to the vet announcing, “Natalie and I are getting a new puppy.” But Justice Papageorgiou was not convinced:

“I agree with Michael that, in the context of all the other evidence before me, these texts are not evidence of ownership but rather communications between a committed couple. Layla was their family dog, but it does mean that she was jointly owned,” she concluded. 

After their split, Simpson claimed that the couple agreed to continue sharing Layla’s care and expenses, but Justice Papageorgiou found that her position was not supported by the facts, noting that while the dog spent some time with Natalie, she lived with Duboff.  

“In March/April 2020 when their dispute over Natalie’s time with Layla began, Natalie did not take any action. She admitted that she knew she could have brought a claim in March/April 2020 but did not. Indeed, in an email dated April 28, 2020, she advised Michael that she had received ‘advice’ and was not going to try to see Layla anymore. She essentially walked away. These actions are not the actions of someone who believes they have a legal right to ownership or possession. She did not see Layla for seven months until she took her on St. Claire Avenue,” the judge added.

“In my view, there was no joint ownership. Considering all the circumstances, Layla was at all times owned by Michael, even though Natalie loved her very much and continued to spend time with her after their separation,” she wrote.

Finally, Justice Papageorgiou rejected Simpson’s claim for a constructive trust over Layla’s ownership, concluding she had fallen short of demonstrating unjust enrichment. In any case, the remedy would be not be appropriate in this case, she added.

“Even though a dog is considered property, it is true that it is more than property to most people.  However, a dog is not a child.  It straddles a difficult place between the two.  As property, the court could order that the dog is sold and the parties share the proceeds, which I’m certain neither party would want.  Or it could impose some kind of shared schedule, as Natalie requests,” the judge wrote. “However, courts are not equipped to supervise the sharing of a pet. Orders requiring some kind of shared schedule would encourage cases like this in the context of limited court resources. As well, there are significant wide-ranging policy concerns about ongoing supervision which could be required.”

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