Court battle over $20,000 dog will stay in Beaumont

Ryan McLeod, his two sons, and his dog Gunner

Despite his best efforts, Guardian Angel Service Dogs founder Dan Warren will have to answer before a Southeast Texas judge as to why he feels he is entitled to nearly $70,000 for a puppy he himself values at (only) $20,000. The ruling was made by 58th District Court Judge Bob Wortham on Wednesday, Jan. 16, in response to a motion filed by Warren’s attorney seeking to have the case squashed in Texas on a technicality outlined in an agreed to “Puppy Purchase” contract.

Wortham, however, did not interpret the contract in a manner consistent with Warren’s legal counsel, and has deemed the argument a non-issue. Per the judge’s ruling, the “Puppy Purchase” contract, which was inked between Warren and the McLeod family of Groves bringing the suit to court, failed to include any language stating Guardian Angel would be due any money over the agreed to purchase price. Accordingly, the disagreement over who is entitled to the excess funds would not be covered under the contract stipulation that insists all legal matters be conducted in Warren’s home state of Virginia via a forum-selection clause.

“A common sense examination reveals that the (McLeods’) claims are not within the scope of the agreement,” Wortham wrote, “and, as a result, the forum-selection clause contained in the agreement does not apply.” Warren has asserted claim to the McLeods’ funds since the money was collected from fundraising events conducted by the family to purchase the $20,000 dog from Warren, despite Warren providing no assistance in the fund collection.

“There is nothing in the Puppy Purchase Agreement that could provide any basis for determining which party would be entitled to proceeds from fundraisers, or how to resolve a dispute over those proceeds,” Wortham further states in his ruling. Wortham said he is expected to hear the case in his court barring any appeal granted to Warren’s favor.

Send me an Angel

While still a hefty sum of money for Labrador retriever puppy, Ryan and Tara McLeod were able to pay the $20,000 price tag initially quoted for the animal thanks to fundraising efforts and donations from a generous community. The animal was supposed to be able to alert the family if and when their son, Racer, was in danger of complications associated with the Type 1 diabetes from which the child suffers.

The disease causes Racer’s blood sugar levels to spike and drop to dangerous levels without notice, and puts the child in grave danger of falling into coma or dying in his sleep.

Racer’s plight became urgent in late 2011 when the then-2-year-old was stricken with his first diabetic seizure. Racer’s parents said that keeping their son’s sugar level on a stable level has been an ongoing battle.

“That’s when we started looking for some extra help to fight his disease,” Ryan McLeod said. “Our main concern was at night. One night we checked him, he was perfectly normal to make it through to the morning, and 45 minutes later he was having a seizure.” Fortunately, the toddler was sleeping with his mother that night and she felt Racer having the seizure. Had he not been under his mother’s care, he could have died. It was too close a call for the McLeod family.

The McLeods started looking for a remedy to keep their son from falling victim to his ailment. That’s when they found Guardian Angel Service Dogs and, in the process, Dan Warren.

Foregone honeymoon

“(Warren’s) great working with you throughout the fundraising process leading up to buying the dog,” Ryan McLeod told The Examiner, “but once he gets paid, it’s impossible to get in touch with him and he passes off everything on to his trainers.”

The warm fuzzy feelings McLeod said he had when he first learned there was a way through Guardian Angel Service Dogs to keep his son safe while he slept were lost immediately after receiving the untrained puppy, Gunner, in May 2012.

“We were told we’d be able to sleep through the night and if the dog noticed Racer’s blood sugar change, he’d come and alert us,” said McLeod, a Beaumont firefighter who is perplexed and frustrated with the whole situation. “My wife and I would’ve never gone with this company if we’d known we were going to have to train the dog ourselves.”

According to McLeod, even though the family has had possession of the dog for 8 months, Gunner still cannot accurately alert and doesn’t even attempt to alert at night.

“I work with the dog every day, but I’m not a certified trainer,” McLeod said. “The dog is just not interested in alerting at all.”

Although Warren has elected not to answer reporter queries, the matter of training the service dogs provided through his company is somewhat outlined on the nonprofit’s website. “Warren Retrievers has developed a scent training protocol that is unique and unsurpassed in training circles,” it reads. The training allegedly includes three weeks of training when the puppy is 7 weeks old, and periodic in-home training visits after the puppy is placed with its new family. “We are so certain that our DAD scent training works that we offer a money-back guarantee on that portion of the program.” The exact opposite is expressed in the “Puppy Purchase” contract Warren has with the McLeods, however, which stipulates under the terms of the agreement that in order to be eligible for “a portion of the training costs” to be refunded, the family would need to document weekly updates to Guardian Angel Service Dogs and the trainer for 24 months. Then, “the amount of the refund shall be at the discretion of Guardian Angel.”

Insult to injury

While trying to train a dog with no prior experience in doing such a thing, the McLeods were then hit with a kicker: Warren filed suit against the family, saying he was owed not just the $20,000 but all of the funds raised through the family’s efforts, which amounted to “an excess of $60,000.” Ryan McLeod said he was floored.

Aside from the fact that no such provision exists as part of the signed “Puppy Purchase” contract, McLeod said Warren’s claims are ludicrous. The couple then filed a motion in Jefferson County’s 58th District Court asking for relief from Warren’s claims. The McLeods are seeking a declaration that they not be required to pay more than the $20,000 already paid for the dog and that Warren is not entitled to any money in Racer’s separate account. That case is pending after Judge Wortham’s recent ruling to move forward with the litigation.

Melinda Colon, a former Guardian Angel Service Dogs client, says she has evidence Warren is already collecting well over the value of the puppies he sells desperate families, as evidenced by purchase agreements between Warren and puppy providers, which are bought for anywhere between $500 and $2,000 before Warren ups the base price to $6,000 for sale to his nonprofit’s clients. The rest of the $20,000 cost of a Guardian Angel dog, according to Warren’s information, is for the dog’s training.

However, in Warren’s 2011 Form 990 submission to the IRS (a document used to file financial details for nonprofits), he states that he was paid in excess of $255,000 for dog purchases, with only $78,000 spent on training.

“He’s taking advantage of people who are trying to deal with children diagnosed with a sickness that could kill them,” Colon said, herself a mother of a child with special needs that could benefit from a proper service dog. “He preys on parents who are trying to deal with something they know nothing about.”

The name game

Colon has taken to doing her own investigation of Warren after she realized he was not the kind of person she wanted to spend $20,000 with. With documents in hand, Colon started a Facebook page, and then a website, showcasing Warren and Guardian Angel Service Dogs as an example of who not to do business with when looking for an alert dog. In response, Warren filed suit against the mother of four in a four-count lawsuit demanding judgment for civil conspiracy, tortious interference with business relationships, defamtion, and tortious interference with contracts in an Orange County, Florida court.

“It’s not defamation if it’s true,” Colon said in her defense. 

In the meantime, Warren has changed the name of his company, which now goes by Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers. The newly branded business is still using the nonprofit status of its former self, granted by the government since, according to Warren, “The Corporation is organized exclusively for educational purposes and, to the extent that such educational purposes are coupled with a charitable component, for charitable purposes, within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code or the corresponding section of any future federal tax code.” Warren’s nonprofit status not only kept the proceeds of the corporation tax exempt, but  it also allowed the company to receive a new vehicle courtesy of Toyota’s “100 Cars for Good” program. 

“The Toyota Highlander being awarded to Guardian Angel Service Dogs Inc. will enable the nonprofit to safely transport the medical service dog, trainer and all their equipment and supplies to their new home, thus greatly reducing overall travel costs,” a statement announcing the winner touted. Whether the saved costs will be forwarded to the nonprofit’s clients remains to be seen.

Warren, acting in official capacity as the “Board Chair” of the nonprofit he is also president of, said of his mission to help families, “It’s our job to figure out how to make our program work for these individuals and families who are desperate for help for themselves or a loved one. We do not discriminate against age, geography, diagnosis or financial status. To look into someone’s eyes and see hope where fear once lived is a tremendous motivator and extremely gratifying.

“One of our biggest challenges is securing adequate levels of funding that will ensure that we can continue providing hope to families in need. And the need is huge. We offer the opportunity for our families to do fundraising events in their local community to help offset the cost of obtaining a service dog. But with the right partnerships, we could do so much more.”

But wait, there’s more

And from the money raised to assist Racer in his fight to stay alive while growing up with a potentially deadly disease, Warren is looking for his cut – which, according to his litigation against the McLeods, is the whole enchilada.

But not if the McLeods and their attorneys prevail. Matthew Morgan of the Reaud, Morgan & Quinn law firm is assisting attorney John Werner in the matter for the McLeods pro bono and said the McLeods fulfilled their monetary obligation with Warren and his company by paying the agreed sum of $20,000 for the dog, and that any additional money raised is being used for Racer’s ongoing medical care.

“They don’t owe them money,” said Morgan. “The McLeods paid the $20,000 for the dog. (Guardian Angel) owes them some training, but we’ve offered to cut that off and go our separate ways, but they won’t.”