Vet who testified before Congress embroiled in legal battle
Sheila Lyons, the veterinarian whose July 12 testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation was critical of current medication and veterinary practices in the horseracing industry, is engaged in a legal battle with the American Veterinary Medical Association and the board of directors of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation that she claims to have founded.
In December 2011, Lyons filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleging, among other things, trademark violations, copyright infringement, misappropriation of intellectual property, loss of business opportunities, libel, slander, and intentional infliction of emotion distress.
Named in addition to the two organizations is Dr. Robert Gillette, Director of the Richard G. and Dorothy A. Metcalf Veterinary Sports Medicine Program, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University.
Click here to read the complaint.
The defendants in the lawsuit have filed motions to dismiss, but Judge William G. Young has yet to rule on those motions. The defendants have not filed a response to the complaint.
A public war of words began following the Senate testimony by Lyons, who was educated at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University and describes herself as the “founder and director of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.”
On July 18, a letter signed by the board of directors of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, based in Fort Collins, Colo., stated: “The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation that is recognized the AVMA does not have any professional affiliation with Sheila Lyons.”
The board (Linda Blythe, Hilary M. Clayton, James L. Cook, Robert L. Gillette, Kevin K. Haussler, Andris Kaneps, C. Wayne McIlwraith, Joseph J. Wakshlag, and M. Christine Zink) said the statement was released “in response to recent inquiries regarding Sheila Lyons, an individual veterinarian who has stated in various contexts that she represents an identically named organization.”
The announcement acknowledged that the ACVSMR “is currently in litigation with Lyons over her use of the name.”
In response to the release from the ACVSMR, Lyons distributed a statement that said, in part, “I suppose it was naïve of me to expect that there wouldn't be some criticism from certain vested interests within the veterinary and horse racing industry who have a very strong financial interest in maintaining the status quo.
“Since providing testimony to the (Senate) Committee,” the statement continued, “I have been called names on the radio and in the press and received e-mails from horse owners, trainers, veterinarians and even some complete strangers warning me that rumors are being circulated in an attempt to discredit me personally. Most of these personal, ad hominem attacks have focused on me personally and failed entirely to respond in any way or provide a credible counterpoint to the substance of the testimony it was my privilege to give to the Committee in support of this important legislation (Interstate Horse Racing Improvement Act of 2011).”
Attempts to discredit Lyons are at the heart of the lawsuit as well.
According to the complaint and her statement, Lyons created the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation in 1995 to “raise money and promote research and education in what at that time was the emerging field of equine sports and rehabilitation medicine.” She conducts research at her Homecoming Farm in Massachusetts, a 501(c)3 organization that, according to its website, was “created to bring together experts from the human and veterinary medical and general sciences professions to establish a newly recognized specialty field in Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation to benefit all animals.”
Lyons said she is the registered owner of the trademark for “The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation” and owns several copyrights related to research conducted in the name of the organization, and also owns the internet domain name ACVSMR.org.
The complaint says Lyons approached the AVMA in 1997 to set the wheels in motion to get the organization's approval and endorsement for educational and certification programs. Two years later, the complaint continues, Lyons met Gillette at a veterinary conference and told him of her plans for the ACVSMR, and that Gillette was eager to work to get the AVMA endorsement. In 2000, Lyons said, she invited Gillette to join an organizing committee.
Four years later, when the full organizing committee held its second formal meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., Lyons said she was “forced out” by Gillette and others because “unnamed individuals” in Massachusetts had filed complaints against her. Lyons said Gillette and the other organizing committee members refused to disclose the identities of the accusers.
In 2011, however, Lyons learned the names of the two individuals, who had also filed the complaints with attorneys general in two states, the Internal Revenue Service, and veterinary boards in multiple states. One of them, Ellen Asack, is described in the lawsuit as someone with “a criminal history and a habit of filing false and malicious claims and threatening to physically harm and ruin the personal and professional reputations of others.”
Lyons said Asack and a second woman, Betsy Erickson, had orchestrated “a campaign of sending email messages containing false, defamatory and hostile accusations,” and that one of the recipients, Gillette, “communicated” the accusations to “each member of the organizing committee and to the AVMA as if they were true.”
“In each and every case, “ the lawsuit states, the “allegations were investigated, found to be baseless and Doctor Lyons was fully exonerated of any wrongdoing.”
Gillette, the lawsuit states, “knew or should have known that these allegations were false but nevertheless used these baseless allegations as a pretext for removing Doctor Lyons from the organizing committee and the theft of her ideas, trademark and copyrighted work product.”
What does Lyons want from the suit?
“I have worked 20 years to create this,” she said. “I want it to be official that I am the one that created this, not for ego reasons, but the specialty I created and continue to offer, is one that is based on the strict adherence to the standards of practice and based on the structure and the offerings in the analogous human specialty field.”