A federal jury has agreed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals breached a confidentiality agreement with a Lee County Sheriff's deputy who lost his job after confirming a tip that a K9 officer was abusing his dog.
The six-woman, two-man jury heard five days of testimony and closing arguments Thursday morning and returned its verdict at 11 p.m. that night, awarding 35-year-old Jason Yerk $155,000 in back pay since his resignation in November 2008.
Yerk, a K9 officer who worked for the office five years, smiled as he heard U.S. District Judge John Steele read the six-page verdict sheet, but declined to comment. After being forced to resign due to untruthfulness, he filed for bankruptcy and has been unable to find a law enforcement job. He'd earned $42,314.76.
His attorney, José Font, of Hollywood, called the verdict justice.
"Jason Yerk was vindicated," said Font, who was assisted at trial by co-counsel Evan Zuckerman. "For years, PETA had denied the existence of a confidentiality agreement, with no factual basis. Their own business records identified the existence of a confidentiality agreement."
Robert Hall, of Tampa, who represented PETA with lead counsel Patricia Griffith, of Atlanta, and Phil Hirschkop of Alexandria, Va., told the judge he would be renewing his motion for a judgment in favor of PETA; the judge had denied it twice already.
Griffith declined to comment, except to say PETA is considering an appeal.
Six jurors declined to comment, but one man called deliberations "tough" and he and the foreman said they believed they'd come to the right verdict after deliberating roughly eight hours. The foreman, however, said they didn't award Yerk future pay because they believed there were "other factors" involved in Yerk not getting hired for another law enforcement job. Although six jurors normally deliberate, the judge allowed the two alternates to remain.
Yerk sued Virginia-based PETA in August 2009, contending he agreed to corroborate a tip that Deputy Sgt. Travis Jelly had been seen by several deputies repeatedly kicking and punching his K9 dog and suspending him by a leash, but only after PETA promised confidentiality.
Although he told the animal rights group the "culture" of the office was to eliminate employees who spoke out against other deputies, a PETA investigator disclosed his name without alerting him and he was forced to resign after he initially denied being PETA's informant. At a second interview, he conceded he'd spoken to PETA after the group called him to corroborate another deputy's information.
Jurors were told deputies are not allowed to lie to Internal Affairs investigators.
Jelly, 32, an 11½-year veteran, is still on the force and testified this week, minimizing what PETA had been told and denying he'd abused any dogs. He'd also denied abusing his dog, Blade, to internal affairs investigators, saying he was only "angry" that Blade had ignored his orders, bared his teeth and growled.
Jelly, who was a dog trainer, denied striking or hitting him, but admitted rolling on top of the dog to control him and jerking his neck up with his leash. He told investigators the dog didn't always obey him and had bitten his children.
Other deputies told internal affairs investigators they'd seen Jelly act inappropriately with the dog, slam him to the ground, causing Blade to yelp, and jerk his neck up by the leash. But they agreed it didn't rise to the level of criminal animal abuse under state law.
Deputies' accounts also differed about the time period and alleged abuse, so the investigation into Jelly was closed as "unsubstantiated."
Lt. Kathryn Rairdon testified they'd always suspected the tip came from a disgruntled fired employee, Guillermo Quintana, whose girlfriend worked in a pet store that had been investigated by PETA, so she had contacts with them.
It turned out Quintana was the original tipster, but PETA wanted a current deputy to confirm his tip. Quintana also lost his job due to untruthfulness three months before Yerk did.
PETA has always denied liability, arguing Yerk perjured himself and resigned voluntarily so he cannot profit from his lies. PETA contended it had a higher duty to comply with a law enforcement investigation after Rairdon demanded the confidential informant's name, which a PETA investigator mistakenly provided.
But Font, who presented nine of the trial's 10 witnesses, used several of PETA's employees to build his case, showing the confidentiality agreement was known throughout the organization and was even listed as a "guarantee" on its website.
The website changed shortly after that, removing the guarantee of anonymity, but jurors were not allowed to hear that because the judge ruled it would prejudice them and Font could still show the agreement existed in other ways.