Court of Petty Appeals: Coughlin v. Virginia Animal Law Society

The Court of Petty Appeals is the highest appellate jurisdiction court at UVa Law. The Court has the power to review any and all decisions, conflicts, and disputes that arise involving, either directly, indirectly, or tangentially, the Law School or its students. The Court is comprised of four associate justices and one Chief Justice. Opinions shall be released periodically and only in the official court reporter: the Virginia Law Weekly. Please email a brief summary of any and all conflicts to


Coughlin v. Virginia Animal Law Society

90 U.Va 403 (2017)

HADEN, J., joined by GOLDMAN, C.J., and PICKUS and THORNTON, JJ., announcing the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Coughlin appeals to this Court, asking us to recognize a discrimination claim on behalf of her pet, Gary. Based on the following, we reverse.

The facts of this case are not in dispute. Every year, the Virginia Animal Law Society (VALS) conducts a “Paw Review” event, which they hold right after journal tryouts to remind 1Ls of their traumatic experience trying to write on to Law Review. The purpose of the event is to raise money for a no-kill shelter for animals in Fluvanna County. According to the event description made public to the Law School: “[T]he pets of student [sic] and faculty compete to receive the title of the law school’s most loved pet.”

VALS sets up the event as follows. They solicit members of the student body and faculty to submit photos of “pets” for the competition. Then, each pet’s photo is placed inside of a jar, and all of the jars are put on display in Hunton & Williams. People are encouraged to vote for the pet that they like the most by placing money in that pet’s jar. See also Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 588 U.S. 310, 313 (2010) (“Money=votes”).

Professor Coughlin submitted a photo of her pet Gary, a toad, for Paw Review, and VALS accepted the submission and allowed Gary to be entered into the competition. At the end of the voting period, VALS calculated the winners, and announced two separate winners: Best Dog and Best Cat. The winners were determined based on the amount of money that their jars had collected. 

Professor Coughlin lodged a complaint with VALS regarding the results of Paw Review. She does not dispute that the Best Dog and Best Cat received more money than any other cat or dog, or indeed, any other pet, including Gary. Rather, she argued that the categories of Best Cat and Best Dog discriminate against non-furry pets, and that there was no way Gary could have won, even if he did earn the most money. She argues that there should be a separate category that her pet could win, like Best Reptile. 

VALS ignored the complaint, feeling that they had no power to make any changes after the winners had been announced. Having exhausted her administrative routes, Professor Coughlin filed suit in the Court of Student Affairs. VALS argued that they did not discriminate against Gary in selecting the winning categories, because the vast majority of pets are either cats or dogs. They also argue that there is no remedy available now that the contest is over. Judge Napier agreed, and dismissed the case. Professor Coughlin timely appealed.

At the outset, under the Goluboff Suggestion, we note that we have jurisdiction because this case arises out of the Law School; the parties are a professor and a student group at UVa Law.

VALS has asked that we give deference to their adjudication of Coughlin’s original administrative complaint. They argue that in Law Weekly v. ABC Store #1782, we recognized that student groups should have large authority to run their internal affairs and deal with outside groups in a representative capacity. 123 U.Va 201 (2014). They ask that we review that record under an “arbitrary and capricious” standard. 

Coughlin has argued that we should review the record de novo. She points to Petty Rule of Civil Procedure 1: “We do what we want.” She also argues that in In re Virginia Law Women’s Funding, this Court noted that without a strong external review of certain kinds of actions, student groups might deprive others (or, as was the case in Virginia Law Women’s Funding, be deprived) of important resources.

We do not think that it is in VALS’ interest for us to review the record under their suggested standard. The record they present is rather scant, and there is little to no basis upon which we can affirm their dismissal of the complaint. Rather than remand this case back to them for another proceeding, further litigation, and another appeal back to this Court, we will review this case de novo and save everyone some money. Especially VALS, who has spent all $122 of their student affairs’ money allocation on this lawsuit.

VALS argues that it could have chosen not to have a Paw Review at all, or to have given prizes to every pet candidate. They argue that because they have these larger powers, they must also have the included lesser power to give some candidates prizes and not others. We have recognized this “greater includes the lesser” argument in other contexts. See Holsapple v. Rod and Gun Club, 23 U.Va 1452 (2016) (“Room reservation conditionally denied until you are actually a club again.”). However, we have also recognized that in other cases, the greater does not include the lesser when the lesser is chosen in a discriminatory or harmful way. Collins v. Elections Committee, 165 U.Va 83 (2017) (“You really shouldn’t make appointments to committees based on their knowledge of Survivor and RuPaul’s Drag Race.”).

VALS knew that Gary was a toad, but accepted him into Paw Review anyway. VALS has carefully avoided answering Coughlin’s contention that even if Gary had the most money, he still couldn’t win Paw Review. We think VALS refuses to answer that contention because it is damning to their case. VALS could have rejected Gary if they felt that Paw Review was only for cats and dogs. However, not only did they knowingly accept Gary, but they also raised money through his participation in Paw Review. 

Allowing Gary to compete in Paw Review but limiting winners to only cats and dogs discriminates against these non-furry friends. This discrimination is unlawful, and allows VALS and cats and dogs to benefit at the expense of Gary. Even petty law cannot allow such a scheme to continue.

VALS argues that, by reversing the dismissal of the complaint, they will have to give an award for every kind of animal to avoid alleged discrimination. We agree that if they choose to give an equal award to each participant of Paw Review, they will avoid future discrimination lawsuits. However, there are a number of other solutions that will reach a similar goal. They can simply give prizes for the Best Animal, and give that to the animal with the most money in its jar. They can give out no prizes and simply donate the money. Or, they can come up with silly categories, like Best Smile, and make all animals eligible for that prize.

We close by remarking that, for future Paw Review discrimination claims, damages are not available as relief, because that money should go to the shelter. Only injunctive relief preventing continuing discrimination shall be available.

This Law School was founded on the principle that all pets are beloved by their owners. Today, we are able to support that foundation and provide needed justice for Gary. The judgment of the lower court should be reversed. It is so ordered.


GOLDMAN, C.J., concurring.

I would only like to point out to Justice Haden that Toads are amphibians, not reptiles. Also my submission of the snakes of UVa Law was rejected in the Paw Review competition, so our majority decision feels particularly vindicating.   

ANGELOTTI, J., concurring in the judgment.

I agree that VALS acted improperly because they created the category of Best Cat. I do not like cats, so there can be no Best Cat. There are only two categories of cats – bad cats and dead cats. 

JANI, J., dissenting. 

Here we have a question of whether a toad, “Gary,” was unduly discriminated against by VALS in their annual Paw Review contest. I stand alone in saying the Court erred in its judgment. 

Today we see an activist Court overstepping its authority by issuing an affirmative injunction against a student group. The question this court must ask is not whether or not Petitioner Coughlin’s pet was discriminated against, but rather if there was a rational basis for VALS choosing not to include additional categories. 

The Court correctly rules that the remedy does not define the right and that the lower court erred in dismissing the complaint for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See UVa Law v. UVa Undergraduates 917 U.Va 322 (2015) However, the Court then sheds itself of the robe and becomes a de facto legislator. Rather than correctly remanding the case, the court decides to review the record de novo

Here the Court errs in allowing de novo review, as this case does not meet the high threshold for de novo review. Id. (“Because we are badasses”). See also Common Sense v. Scott Commons 475 U.Va 322 (“Because this court is f**ing awesome”). “To save everyone some money” is an improper standard to warrant de novo review. In fact, the costs of litigation have been substantially lowered since Student Affairs cancelled SBA’s weekly keg (see figure 1).

In giving deference to student organizations’ independent decision making, it is imperative that the record reflect VALS’s reasoning behind creating only two awards, “Best Cat” and “Best Dog.” While Paw Review only awarded cats and dogs, it also featured some type of rodent (the record is unclear as to whether this was a gerbil or some other type of unfun pet). So this was not, strictly speaking, a student-on-frog crime. Perhaps VALS has a policy of not awarding participation trophies, or awarding animals that are not strictly pets (the record reflects that Gary is not a cherished pet but rather a trespasser in an otherwise lovely garden). The proper ruling should be to remand the complaint with a directive that VALS submit, in writing, the rationale behind their conclusion to the court of original jurisdiction.

Finally, I would like to add that there are only two types of cats: bad cats and ok cats. Therefore, I suggest to VALS that next year’s Paw Review award be changed to simply, “Cat.”


1 At least, I think that’s where they got the name.
2 These aren’t meant to be sketchy quote marks, they’re just for emphasis. Keep reading, you’ll understand.