PITTSFIELD — Lee Kohlenberger Jr., a man known for donating comfort dogs to Berkshire schools and police departments, faces a possible larceny charge for defrauding a customer of his poodle-breeding business.
He disputes the claim — which grew out of civil complaints that stacked up against him and his company, Berkshire Poodles, over the past two years.
"Here we are, two years later, with me taking three trips to the courts,” said Laura Nicolino, a dissatisfied customer from Bay Shore, N.Y. “And now a criminal charge against him, because this is actually theft."
Kohlenberger was to be arraigned this week but won a continuance. His attorney, Alexander Sohn, calls the case a contract dispute that should have remained a civil claim — and not become a potential criminal matter.
In recent months, Kohlenberger has settled several judgments that went against him in Central Berkshire District Court.
In an interview, Kohlenberger said that the customer complaints that reached the court system represent a fraction of his company’s roughly 500 sales of puppies over the past 12 years. “This is a small few,” he said.
Nonetheless, Kohlenberger said he is regrouping, personally and professionally, after a fire at his family’s rented home in Becket in July killed three breeding-age poodles. He is scaling back operation of a related business, Berkshire Dogs Unleashed in Lenox, and plans to merge a nonprofit he runs, Berkshire Comfort Dogs, with the Eleanor Sonsini Animal Shelter, allowing him more time to tend to his business affairs.
Kohlenberger was named this summer to the “40 Under Forty” list of community leaders, assembled by Berkshire Community College.
“I just spread myself too thin,” Kohlenberger said in an interview joined by his attorney.
Asked why he didn’t resolve the court judgments against him more quickly, Kohlenberger said his Berkshire Dogs Unleashed business had been challenged by the expense of fighting a lawsuit brought in 2020 by a Lanesborough company, The Berkshire Dog, over use of a name that it claimed infringed on its own. A judge ruled in late 2020 that “there is not a substantial likelihood of confusion.”
“The frivolous lawsuit … drained my finances for two years,” he said. “And that it's still going on? Even though we've beat them in court?”
Unhappy Berkshire Poodles customers from around New England said in interviews with The Eagle this week they had cause to seek compensation from Kohlenberger and were critical of how he runs his businesses. Many made repeated trips to a Pittsfield courthouse to get satisfaction.
At least two would-be customers, one of them owed more than $16,000, secured payments only by successfully placing liens against a property Kohlenberger owned at Harryel Street in Pittsfield that was sold. The liens followed judgments in their favor in Central Berkshire District Court.
Kohlenberger's scheduled arraignment on the larceny charge Tuesday related to a complaint from Nicolino, the Long Island customer. The Berkshire District Attorney's Office agreed to continue it at Sohn’s request.
Nicolino had bought two poodles from Kohlenberger before their business relationship soured. Nicolino said she sought to buy a puppy to be her service dog in 2020. She says the company offered her a standard poodle. Nicolino sent an agreed-upon $3,000 fee. Nicolino made arrangements to travel from Long Island to Pittsfield to pick up the dog. But the puppy wasn't ready — and she asked for her money back.
Seeking to recoup her payment, and other expenses, she filed a small claims court action against Kohlenberger. Nicolino received a judgment in her favor in October, after Kohlenberger failed to appear for a hearing.
After waiting months for payment, Nicolino then filed a criminal charge against Kohlenberger in Central Berkshire District Court. Kohlenberger didn't appear for a magistrate hearing last month, prompting him to be summonsed to court this week on a charge of larceny over $1,200 by false pretense.
Kohlenberger said he wanted to resolve the dispute with Nicolino, but couldn’t manage to in the weeks after his house fire. He and Sohn said that an attorney for Nicolino said they would not seek the larceny charge if Nicolino was paid.
“This stuff should have been handled prior to the fire. I'm not going to use that as an excuse,” Kohlenberger said.
“If I had the $3,900 … I would have given it to her,” he said. “I can only settle so many of these contractual issues. There was nothing personal with Laura. I think that she deserves her money and I would like to get that for [her], now that I'm capable of doing so. I didn't have four grand to give her in July.”
“Lee wants to make this woman whole,” Sohn, the attorney, said of Nicolino. “At the same time, he would also like it to be such that it won't result in him having any sort of criminal record. There was never any scheme to defraud anybody.”
In March 2020, Laura Freid and David Gottsman paid Kohlenberger $7,000 for "a fully trained support dog." Later, they paid another $2,750 for spaying, boarding and additional training, according to court documents they filed in a claim against Kohlenberger.
"Included in the cost was a promise of certificates certifying her support dog status — such certificates were never received," the complaint read.
After the purchase, the couple learned the dog was aggressive toward other dogs, the complaint read. The couple believed Kohlenberger had "misrepresented" the "nature and abilities of the dog," and requested a refund.
Kohlenberger agreed, according to the complaint. The couple returned the dog in June 2020.
Over one year later, still not seeing a refund of their purchase price, they filed a claim against Kohlenberger on Oct. 19, 2021, for allegedly violating the Consumer Protection Act.
Kohlenberger did not appear in court for a hearing on the matter in March, leading to a judgment in the couple's favor for double the cost of the dog, plus attorney's fees, amounting to $16,081.
Andrew Hochberg, the Pittsfield attorney who represented the dog buyers, said a lien was placed on Kohlenberger's Pittsfield home for the amount of the settlement, which the business owner was compelled to pay as part of the property’s sale.
Some transactions didn't even go that far.
Henry M. Cavaretta, of Stratham, N.H., says he went to court to get a $1,000 deposit back from Kohlenberger after deciding he didn’t want to do business with him. He says Kohlenberger claimed the Berkshire Poodles policy did not provide refunds.
Cavaretta, however, pointed out that the two had never entered into a contract. He sent Berkshire Poodles a letter in May 2020 asking for his money back.
“I found him difficult to do business with — that's a nice way to put it,” Cavaretta said by phone from New Hampshire. “He pretty much told me to take a hike.”
Cavaretta made two trips to Pittsfield to attend court hearings, neither of which were attended by Kohlenberger. Sessions were delayed due to the pandemic, but the court, last October, found for Cavaretta.
“But I still got no money out of it.” He said his spouse, who works in real estate, learned that Kohlenberger’s Pittsfield house was on the market, so Cavaretta sought and secured a “judgment lien.”
“I finally got a check in the mail. It took me almost three years,” he said.
Kohlenberger said the sale was not forced by the need to cover settlements, but, rather, to capitalize on high home values. "We sold that house because we got $410,000 for a ranch off of Williams Street in Pittsfield. We sold at the peak of the market."
Andrea Della Monica, of Becket, had long wanted a standard poodle. In August 2020, she signed a contract to buy one from Kohlenberger and paid a $500 deposit. She went ahead that December and paid another $2,000 and was put on a waiting list.
A litter is forthcoming, she says she was told. Then communications grew strained.
“After that payment was made, defendant would not indicate where I was on the wait list,” she wrote in a small claims court filing on June 24, 2021. “He then ceased all communication with me, refused to answer my calls or texts. I told him in writing that I no longer wanted to do business with him.”
“All of a sudden he blocked me from Facebook,” she said in an interview. “It left me incredulous, because my initial dealings with him were fairly positive.”
The court granted her a default judgment April 6. A month later, she filed a hand-written letter with the court asking for help obtaining her money. She later sought to have the sheriff’s office serve him with a warrant.
One “capias” warrant was served on Kohlenberger by the Berkshire Sheriff Office's Civil Process Division since 2020, according to Assistant Deputy Superintendent Diane Maynes. But it concerned Cavaretta’s court judgment, not Della Monica's.
Della Monica said a representative of the sheriff’s office told her, “You might be out of luck.”
Then, this summer, Kohlenberger texted her to ask how much she would accept. She says she thought about it and replied she would agree to a payment of $1,800 — short of the $2,250 award by the court. A check came a few weeks later.
“I consider myself lucky at this point,” she said. “I really don’t wish him ill will. I felt like he got in way over his head."
Maria McCallister, who lives in Albany, N.Y., said she purchased her poodle, Madison, from Kohlenberger for $2,500 last year, with plans to enter it into agility and obedience competitions.
To participate in those events, she needed paperwork showing that the puppy was registered with the American Kennel Club — something she said only Kohlenberger could provide. His contract said he sold AKC-registered puppies, she said.
One year passed before she received the paperwork from Kohlenberger. When messages and emails to him requesting the papers went nowhere, she filed a small claims court complaint.
When the paperwork came through, she terminated her action. "He eventually fulfilled his contractual obligations, and I withdrew the claim," McCallister said.
In another small claims case, Victoriya Tuzman of Newton won a $6,180 judgment against Berkshire Poodles. That dispute began Feb. 10 with the company as the plaintiff, claiming Tuzman had violated a purchase contract by not granting Berkshire Poodles the right of refusal in the later transfer of the dog to an immediate relative. The dog was initially bought to provide comfort for Tuzman's special needs grandson, she said; the child still has the dog.
She counter-claimed in May, saying she should be paid $7,000 for “time, emotional stress and financial expenses” investigating the condition and care of the puppy the company provided. Tuzman claimed the dog’s true identity had been falsified.
The court found for her in June.
“He still owes us money,” Tuzman said by phone from Croatia, where she was traveling this week.
Kohlenberger said he disagrees with the court judgment in Tuzman's favor and said he may seek to have the case reopened.