After losing wife to cancer, Kansas man goes to court to keep her beloved service dog

U.S. & World

Tootsie

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (WDAF) — A grieving Kansas man headed to court on Tuesday to get his late wife’s service dog back and honor her dying wish. 

Paul Marinsky said his wife, Brittani, suffered from debilitating chronic issues and wanted a service dog to help with her mobility. She researched and found a Maryland organization called Starfleet Service Dogs, Inc. (SSDI), which paired her with a two-year-old Sheepadoodle named Tootsie. 

“Tootsie is a visual heart-warmer,” Marinsky said. “She has such a personality.” 

Marinsky said his wife paid Starfleet $141 a month for a wellness plan and spent thousands of dollars on Tootsie’s training, care and other related expenses. 

But during the nearly two years Tootsie lived with the couple, they bonded. Tootsie became not only a valuable service dog but also a beloved member of the family. 

“I absolutely love Tootsie,” Marinsky said. “And it was my wife’s dying wish that I keep Tootsie. She told me to do what I can to make sure that happens.” 

Brittani and Paul Marinsky

Brittani Marinsky, a gifted teacher at Leawood Elementary School, died on Aug. 30, 2020, of gastric cancer.

Weeks before her passing, Marinsky said he told Starfleet he wanted to keep Tootsie and make her a permanent part of his family. 

“On Aug. 10, the day Brittani received the news that her cancer was terminal and made the decision to discontinue treatment, I called the CEO and founder of Starfleet,” he said. “I asked her, ‘What do I need to do to keep Tootsie?’ She said Tootsie is meant to be a service dog. But there are options available, and we’ll have to talk about them.”

 “I then offered to buy Tootsie,” Marinsky added. “And Starfleet’s CEO said that’s something we can talk about. She also said she would give me however much time I needed with Tootsie.” 

Over the next few months, Marinsky said he exchanged text messages with SSDI about Tootsie, on what a comfort she was to him during his grief and how they needed to develop a plan so he could keep the dog.  

“I’m discussing what deal we can make so I can keep Tootsie,” he said. “I’m trying to ascertain what my options are. In mid-October, I specifically said, ‘What will be needed to keep Tootsie?’ I said I’m prepared to take over all of the costs and pay up to $5,000 or $6,000 to ensure she stays with me.” 

He said SSDI didn’t reject his offer. 

“Jenny (the CEO) said, ‘I can’t promise anything on Tootsie. She’s meant to be a service dog, but I am willing to talk to you and am glad that she’s happy and with you,'” Marinsky recalled.

A short time later, however, Marinsky said SSDI’s tone changed. 

Then in a surprising turn of events, Marinsky said he received a text message from SSDI stating that someone was coming on Dec. 5 to take Tootsie. 

“I told them COVID was in full force, and we’re pretty much locked down,” he said. “I also told them not to send some random person and think they’re going to take the dog. It doesn’t work that way.

“I never outwardly told Starfleet that I’m not giving the dog back,” he added. “I was trying to find an arrangement to keep her. I obviously want and desire to keep Tootsie. Anyone would want a dog that has been with them for nearly two years. I have cared for her, and I love her.” 

The tension turned into a legal battle in late November. 

“I took Tootsie to the Banfield Pet Hospital (in Overland Park) because she had some ear issues,” Marinsky said. “After about an hour, the veterinarian came out and said that someone was here from Starfleet to take Tootsie, and they handed her over to him. 

He added: “The vet said it’s their policy to release the dog to the name on the account. Even though we paid SSDI $141 a month for wellness plan and had taken Tootsie to Banfield for care, SSDI paid the vet bills and its name is on the account.”  

Although shocked and angry, Marinsky said he didn’t want to create a scene in the store. 

“But I told the guy that I had an attorney and wanted to know where he was taking Tootsie,” he said. “I was concerned for Tootsie. She was looking at me the whole time. I knelt down and told her that it’s going to be OK; you’ll come home soon. The guy then walked out the door with her, and I haven’t seen her since.” 

“I didn’t feel like I had a choice but to let Tootsie go with him,” he said, holding back tears. “I knew I had my attorney on my side and thought that was the only option I had.” 

Tootsie and Paul Marinsky

Marinsky learned SSDI took Tootsie to Iowa. 

His attorney and her associate in Iowa immediately filed a petition for writ of replevin and emergency motion for a temporary injunction, legal action to move the case back to Kansas and prevent SSDI from harming Tootsie or taking her to another state. 

The judge granted the emergency motion for a temporary injunction and ordered SSDI not to destroy or harm Tootsie before Tuesday’s hearing on the case. 

It’s a case that now centers on who legally owns Tootsie. 

“Paul and Brittani owned and cared for Tootsie for nearly two years, and even with Brittani’s passing, Paul is still the lawful owner of Tootsie,” attorney Katie Barnett said. “We are working tirelessly to expose the reckless actions by Starfleet and reunite Paul and his beloved dog.” 

Those arguments are echoed in the court filings. 

“Plaintiff is still grieving from the passing of his wife on August 30, 2020,” the petition states. “Now his grief is compounded by the theft of the family’s dog. 

“There also can be no meaningful dispute that the defendants have any right to the possession of Tootsie,” the petition added. “Since adopting Tootsie, plaintiff and his wife have provided complete care for her, including shelter, food, training, love, and companionship. Tootsie’s value to her owner, Plaintiff Paul Marinsky, is priceless.” 

But SSDI disagrees. 

In court papers, the organization argues, “Tootsie is an Academy Dog and is owned in perpetuity by Starfleet. Plaintiff did not adopt Tootsie, and therefore does not own Tootsie. Plaintiff’s wife did not adopt Tootsie and does not own Tootsie.”

SSDI also alleges Marinsky committed theft and violated the contract by “failing to return Tootsie to Starfleet after the handler’s death” and was “not taking proper care of Tootsie when he unlawfully retained her.” 

Marinsky denies those allegations. 

His attorney also argues that SSDI’s contract is ambiguous about ownership. She specifically references one document that states Starfleet is “willing to accept responsibility for graduated service dogs in the event of a graduate’s death or incapacity to provide proper care.”  

“The key word in that sentence is ‘willing,'” Barnett said. “It’s ambiguous and inconsistent with other signed documents.” 

SSDI did not respond to questions.

In the meantime, Marinsky said he will fight as long as it takes to get Tootsie back. 

“I’m in this for the long haul,” he said. “This is going to continue until I get her back.”

“It’s not the same not having Tootsie here,” he added. “She is the last living memory I have of my wife.” 

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