Domestic violence or dog custody? Ugly breakup leads to legal questions
Posted August 16, 2016 5:00 p.m. EDT
Updated August 16, 2016 6:10 p.m. EDT
Chapel Hill, N.C. — James Scott has strong feelings about Marilyn, even calling her his "best friend."
"She was the reason I got up in the morning," Scott says. "She's sassy, she's got genius-level IQ, and she walks like she's wearing high heels."
Marilyn sounds pretty great, but for the last two years, the 5-year-old Australian cattle dog mix has been at the center of a contentious custody dispute between Scott and his ex-girlfriend, Rebecca Bowers.
The fight began in January 2014, when Scott says he decided to end his relationship with Bowers. Scott kept Marilyn for a few months before Bowers took action.
Court records show Bowers filed a small claims action to get Marilyn in September 2014. One month later, she obtained a domestic violence protective order citing harassment dating back to January of that year.
One condition of the order gave Bowers possession of the dog.
Scott admits he crossed the line in his interactions with Bowers in the early stages of their break-up, including altering one of her social media websites. But he questions the timing and motivation of the protective order, which Bowers obtained in October after Scott yelled at her during an argument over the small claims lawsuit.
"Had this order been filed in March or April of 2014, absolutely. But six months later? No," Scott said.
Scott says the domestic violence case was the work of Carolina Student Legal Services, which provides free legal help to students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Court transcripts show Judge Lunsford Long initially had concerns about the legal tactics used in the case.
"I felt like this was, in the beginning, in some way an engineered domestic violence case that was really a dog custody case in disguise," Long said in court.
By January 2015, Bowers dismissed the small claims action. When Long questioned Tristan Routh, Bowers' attorney through Carolina Legal Services, Routh said "she has possession, custody and control of the animal. My client is satisfied with the conditions as they were following the 50b order."
"As the case stretched on and on, people on Margaret Street, according to the lawyers, started talking and they realized this big case was all about a dog," Scott said.
If true, the case wouldn't fit into Carolina Legal Services' types of representation.
Their filing with the North Carolina State Bar says eligible clients may seek legal advice regarding any matter or concern, but legal representation in court is limited to expunction cases, consumer problems, property damage claims and uncontested divorces.
Marilyn's fate was finally decided during a court hearing in April of this year, when Long, after reading a report from a dog expert who observed Marilyn at both homes, decided Bowers should be "granted permanent and exclusive care, custody and control of Marilyn."
"I have no other options. I spent the last of my money, the last of my money going to trial," Scott said.
Scott now remembers his former dog through pictures. He says the legal fight almost put him into bankruptcy.
Bowers was eligible for advice because she paid student fees at UNC, and she received her court services for nearly no cost.
Despite the struggle, Scott says he'd do it all over again.
"If you lost a person, a friend, what do you do? If you care, you go after them," he said. "Until you lose something like that, you don't know you would give up everything else in order to keep one thing. I didn't think Marilyn could be taken."
WRAL News reached out to Carolina Student Legal Services, which would not comment on the case.
Director Fran Muse replied that "it is our position that we appropriately represented a student within the parameters of our plan."
Attempts to contact attorney Tristan Routh and Rebecca Bowers were also unsuccessful.