Court of Petty Appeals: Coughlin v. Paw Review

Coughlin v. Virginia Animal Law Society

912 U.Va. 16 (2019)

Photo courtesy Friends of Gary PAC.

Photo courtesy Friends of Gary PAC.

VanderMeulen, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Shmazzle, C. J., and Ranzini, Elicegui, and Schmid, JJ., joined. Elicegui, J., filed a concurring opinion.


Justice VanderMeulen delivered the opinion of the Court.


The sun sets in the west and rises in the east; the trees sprout new leaves in the spring and shed them in the fall; and the Virginia Animal Law Society discriminates against non-dog-and-cat animals. It’s a tale as old as time, folks, and it’s happening again.




Each year since the founding of the Law School,[1] the Virginia Animal Law Society (VALS) has held a “Paw Review” contest, wherein pet owners submit photos of their animal companions, the photos are placed on jars in the Hunton Andrews Kurth[2] hallway by ScoCo, and denizens of the Law School place money in the jars to signal their aesthetic approval of the pets. The pet with the most money in its jar at the end of the week receives the title of “the Law School’s most loved pet,” according to VALS. The money is donated to a no-kill shelter. It’s all very charming and cute and great for distracting us temporarily from our overwhelming existential dread. There’s just one problem—VALS viciously and unlawfully discriminates against animals other than dogs and cats.


Professor Anne Coughlin complained about the practice in 2017, winning an injunction from this Petty Court ordering Paw Review to include Coughlin’s garden toad, Gary. See Coughlin v. Virginia Animal Law Society, 90 U.Va. 403 (2017) (Coughlin I). There, we famously held that “all pets are beloved by their owners.” Unfortunately, VALS must have missed the armed goons we sent to enforce that ruling. Coughlin submitted photographic evidence that this year’s Paw Review consists of three categories: Cats, Dogs, and “Other.” Coughlin contends that, while “Other” ostensibly includes pets like Gary, the stigma attached to the blatant otherizing of a group of animals and Paw Review’s shameless request that participants submit photos of their “furry friend[s]” lay bare that VALS has simply applied a shiny gloss to its bigoted policies—a gloss meant to evade this Court’s injunction. Coughlin has sued to enjoin VALS to include both Gary and Sweetsong, a hummingbird that frequents Coughlin’s back porch. The lower court ruled for Coughlin, finding that VALS was attempting to evade the injunction in Coughlin I. VALS appealed, holding that the lower court failed to grant its decision-making deference under this Court’s Exxon doctrine. We now affirm.





Appellant VALS contends that under this Court’s Exxon doctrine (not to be confused with Chevron),[3] student groups are entitled to deference as long as there exists a rational basis for their decision. Class of 2005 v. Exxon Station on Emmett, 617 U.Va. 102 (2004) (“SBA’s decision to buy Exxon chicken wings for admitted students is baffling, but is nonetheless ‘rational’ in the barest sense.”). That is, this Court will not generally review de novo decisions of student organizations deemed to be supported by reason, however flimsy, to determine whether they were the best possible decision for the student body.[4] On this basis, Appellant argues its decision to advertise Paw Review for “furry friend[s]” and label animals other than cats and dogs “Other”—allegedly based on a need to “limit the number of category prizes” and “prevent a redux of the Hamster Debacle of 1978”—should receive deference.


But Appellant misreads our precedents. VALS is correct to note that student organization decisions are normally reviewed to determine if their bases are rational and upheld if so. But where a student organization’s action may plausibly be shown to demonstrate animus toward a protected class, not only does Exxon not apply, but the Court will subject the decision to the most exacting scrutiny. See Davies v. Rod & Gun Club, 764 U.Va. 33 (2013) (“A student’s being ‘a no-good hippie’—while probs true—is not a valid reason for her exclusion from a shooting trip.”) The famous protected classes of UVA Law are, of course, (1) hippies, (2) pets, and (3) massage chairs. Id.




The questions here are (1) whether Gary and Sweetsong are “pets” under Rod & Gun and (2) if Appellant’s decision to otherize them was based in animus. If yes to both, then we apply strict scrutiny and BLAMMO! VALS loses.[5]


First off, obvi the toad and hummingbirds are pets. Professor Coughlin loves them and they frequent her home and bring her joy. Appellants, quoting Justice Jani’s dissent in Coughlin I, claim Gary “is not a cherished pet but rather a trespasser in an otherwise lovely garden.” 90 U.Va. at 406 (Jani, J., dissenting). But evidence in the record that Coughlin allows Gary in her home and frequently feeds him scraps of granola and vegan mayonnaise. If that’s not owner–pet love we don’t know what is. And Sweetsong depends on Coughlin for sugary sustenance like most children do on their parents. Relying on the famed doctrine of ipse dixit, we hold that these are pretty clearly pets, folks.


Second, VALS’s decision to otherize Gary and Sweetsong is virtually dripping with animus, as is its not-so-clever “furry friend[s]” wink, clearly designed as it is to communicate that Toads and Hummingbirds Need Not Apply. VALS’s clear notice of its animus via our previous injunctions and the aforementioned armed goons leaves no room for doubt that it knows what it is doing. These guys are straight jerks, no doubt about it.




Once animus against a protected class is determined, our precedents’ commands are clear: INJUNCTION, baby. Rod & Gun. Appellant is, for the forty-sixth year in a row, formally labelled a speciesist cretin and ordered to suspend its unlawful animus. In terms of remedy, we leave it to Appellant to determine how it can include Gary and Sweetsong without the “Other” category, but they are fur sure ordered to get rid of the “furry friend” bullshit from their ads and undergo some sensitivity training about speciesism, the sick creeps.


The court below is affirmed and Coughlin wins again.


It is so ordered.


Justice Elicegui, concurring.


“All pets are beloved by their owners.” Coughlin v. Virginia Animal Law Society, 90 U.Va. 403, 406 (2017). Under this long-standing (okay, it’s only two years old, but it’s TRUE) and just principle, my esteemed colleague, Justice VanderMeulen correctly protected Gary and Sweetsong from VALS’s blatant, targeted discrimination.

I write separately from my capable colleagues to note two points. I would extend the pet-love doctrine even further to explicitly include all creatures self-identified as pets, regardless of species, age, or “existence.” I personally have two beloved pets, Cassie and Princess Star,[6] who are uniquely special to me, their owner, even though they now live in doggy Heaven.[7] In fact, I cried at a brewery over Spring Break because I had to put them down nine and four years ago, respectively. While my dear pets meet the qualification of “furry friend,” they need additional protection lest they experience discrimination for no longer residing in my household. I don’t trust VALS to treat my darling pets with the dignity they deserve.

I also note my disagreement with the Exxon doctrine and urge the Court to revisit this old, mistake-riddled doctrine that has no basis in the Petty Constitution of the Law School. As the court of highest jurisdiction over all petty disputes at UVA Law,[8] this Court cannot limit its power to reviewing the decisions of student groups by granting groups deference so long as the decision is “rational.” Exxon itself shows the error of this doctrine. The Court exists to protect students, even 0Ls, from the tummy troubles that follow after eating chicken wings from a gas station. Class of 2005 v. Exxon Station on Emmett, 617 U.Va. 102 (2004). If the Court is not going to stand up for what is right, delicious, and just, who will? Next thing you know, we’ll rubber stamp the decision to replace the cookies at the Weekly Wind Down with fruit. Not on my watch.

The Court of Petty Appeals has a duty to the UVA Law community. My colleagues do an adequate job of protecting Gary and Sweetsong, and I fully agree with that decision. However, the Court can do more to protect the citizens of UVA Law from petty slights by clarifying the pet-love doctrine to include my beloved pets and exercising the full power of petty court review, instead of limiting the Court’s jurisdiction under Exxon.

[1] We’re pretty sure this is right.

[2] RIP Williams.

[3] Jk it’s really just Chevron.

[4] Can you imagine the nonsense we’d have to deal with? SBA alone would cost us weeks of invaluable blacked-out-at-Bilt time!

[5] This is literally the only thing the Court remembers from Con Law.

[6] Princess was her first name and Star was her middle name. What self-respecting 8-year-old would give a dear pet only one name? Smh. Plus, I couldn’t decide between Princess and Star.

[7] All pets go to Heaven. Or a farm upstate.

[8] Serious disputes need not apply. If you have a real problem, take it to the experts in Student Affairs, folks. If you have a petty problem—break-ups, stolen candy, undergrads in the library—well, you know who the experts are.