Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bed Bug Beagle Dispute Lands in Federal Court

Dixie is a beagle trained to detect bed bugs.  Dixie is owned by Western Industries-North, LLP, which provides pest detection and removal services in the mid-Atlantic region. Western got into the canine bed bug detection business in 2009 by acquiring Dixie, who was purchased from trainers in Florida for $10,400.  After getting Dixie, Western expanded its bed bug business by buying new dogs and hiring new handlers. by January 2012, Western owned four scent dogs and employed four handlers. 

Lessard Hired as Handler

A month after acquiring Dixie, Western hired Blaine Lessard to be Dixie’s handler. Lessard signed an employment agreement in which he agreed, upon termination of his employment for any reason, to return to Western “all such equipment and property” that had come into his possession by reason of his employment.  The agreement also contained non-solicitation and non-compete provisions, which prohibited Lessard from soliciting business from Western’s customers for two years.  He could also not set up a competing business in the same counties in which he worked for Western for two years after a termination of his employment. 

Moonlighting was also prohibited in an employee handbook that stated: “Employees are not allowed to work for another pest control or fumigation firm or to be in business for themselves in the pest control or fumigation business.”  Violation of this provision could result in immediate termination. 

Lessard received $50 each month for boarding Dixie, though Lessard claimed he never received this amount and, in any event, it was insufficient for the expenses involved.  Western promoted its business through media placements featuring both Dixie and Lessard. Dixie brought in about $100,000 a year for two years.  While working for Western, Lessard became familiar with the company’s pricing models for bed bug detection services, as well as learning who Western’s bed bug customers were and what problems they were having. 

Dixie and Lessard became local celebrities in southern Maryland. See the May 15, 2009, article posted by Southern Maryland Newspapers Online

Lessard’s Moonlighting

In November 2011, Western learned that Lessard was using Dixie to provide bed bug detection services for his own customers.  Western found this out because Lessard inadvertently faxed a worksheet to Western’s office which revealed that, on a day Lessard had taken off from work, he had gone to Pennsylvania to provide bed bug detection services for a business that was not a Western customer. 

In February 2012, Western discovered a website for a competing canine bed bug detection company with the name of American Canine Scent Detection, which featured Lessard and Dixie and cited their extensive experience.  The website said that American provides bed bug detection services to hotels, motels, hospitals, senior homes, apartments, theaters, and offices.  The website also claims that American “has searched over 70,000 rooms on the east coast from Manhattan to Virginia Beach.” Lessard also had a Linked-in page stating that Lessard was a Master Canine Handler and Trainer with American Canine Scent Detection. Lessard’s wife had registered American Canine Scent Detection as a trade name in late 2010. 

Western determined to terminate Lessard’s employment and recover Dixie.  Lessard refused the give Dixie to Western, saying, according to the employee who terminated Lessard: “You’re not getting the dog.  There’s no way you’re gonna get the dog.”

Western Seeks TRO

On February 23, 2012, Western filed a complaint and an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order seeking the return of Dixie, to stop Lessard’s competing business, and to require that Lessard not disclose any client information in violation of his employment agreement. 

Lessard threw up a smokescreen of arguments in response to Western, claiming that the training academy in Florida transferred title to Dixie directly to him, that he paid for Dixie’s travel expenses and purchased dog supplies for her, that he provided additional training and kept Dixie’s testing and certifications up to date.  Lastly, he claimed that Dixie was a rescue dog of no value, and that Western had abandoned her to Lessard’s care.  He asserted that the $10,400 paid to the Florida training academy was for training services and not for Dixie. 

The federal district court rejected all these claims, and concluded that Western’s breach of contract claim will likely succeed on the merits.  The court concluded that Western “will clearly lose future business so long as Defendants [Lessard and his wife] continue to hold Dixie.  Thus, mandatory injunctive relief was deemed appropriate.  Lessard was ordered to return the dog and to cease operating his competitive business. 


As one of the most lucrative detection dogs in the private sphere, it can be expected that disputes and lawsuits will arise regarding their use.  The case appears to be one of an employee who understood his employment contract to be a pile of meaningless boiler plate which did not really apply to him.  He may have even convinced himself that the relationship he no doubt developed with Dixie superseded any limitations imposed under his contract with Western.  The fact that Lessard created a website his employer was likely to find sooner rather than later may indicate that he actually believed that he owned Dixie. 

The law appears to have been a minor headache to Lessard.  Western was justified in making it into a major headache for him.  My only concern is Dixie, who probably became accustomed to Lessard’s companionship.  Unfortunately, dogs rarely get to choose their owners, or handlers.

Western Industries-North, LLP v. Lessard, Docket No. 1:12cv177, 2012 WL 859459 (E.D. Va. 2012)

Thanks to L.E. Papet for suggestions.  

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