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Few co-op/condo issues are more emotional than those dealing with pets and service animals. On the one hand, boards at pet-prohibited buildings have to deal with pet owners who craftily substitute lookalike replacements for deceased, grandfathered-in pets, or who falsely claim a disability requiring a therapy animal. On the other hand, some intransigent boards turn a blind eye to genuine disability, violating both law and human compassion. These cases can sometimes lead to public scorn, lawsuits – and possibly death.
On February 13, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevan Cleary filed suit in the New York eastern district federal court, alleging that the seniors’ co-op Woodbury Gardens, on Long Island, violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to let elderly and infirm Sandra Biegel keep an “emotional support dog.” This occurred despite letters from a clinical social worker and three medical doctors, including a pulmonary specialist. They all confirmed that Biegel suffered from pulmonary hypertension, liver disease, diabetes, and residual anxiety and depression, and that her miniature schnauzer, Mikey, served as a “therapy dog,” a state and federally recognized accommodation similar to seeing-eye dogs.
Biegel, the suit said, “was very frail, was on oxygen 24 hours a day, and was unable to leave her home without an ambulance.” As one doctor wrote the board: “Her pulmonary hypertension can be worsened by the removal of her companion [animal].” Wrote another: “The patient suffers from a chronic medical condition and a high anxiety level. Her pet helps relieve her anxiety and helps with her overall emotional well-being.”
Yet the co-op board at the 214-unit Woodbury Gardens refused to grant an exemption to its House Rule No. 10, which stated, “No birds or animals shall be kept harbored in the building unless the same in each instance have been expressly permitted” – a phrasing that gives the board the power to permit service animals even if disability law did not already require reasonable accommodation for such. And so in September 2007, facing threats of evictions and fines, Sandra Biegel and her husband of 46 years finally sent Mikey off to live with a friend.
One month later, on October 18, 2007, Sandra Biegel died at age 74. “This dog was everything to her,” Jack Biegel, her widower, said to the New York Daily News, “and the stress of having to give him away hastened her death.” He told Newsday: “She was heartbroken. She was crying her eyes out” after giving up the dog. “Mikey was everything to her; he stayed in bed with her all day, and calmed her blood pressure down. They bullied us,” he said of the co-op board.
It’s hard to argue with that after what the board did next: showing no sympathy or compassion for an elderly man whose wife had just died, the board continued to badger Biegel for the fines and legal fees. Biegel’s attorney requested a reduction in the former and the removal of the latter. On March 21, 2008, the board refused – and even threatened to terminate the grieving widower’s proprietary lease if he did not pay all the charges. The retiree eventually shelled out $2,305.48.
Woodbury Gardens isn’t alone in such tactics, notes attorney Darryl M. Vernon, a partner in Vernon & Ginsburg, who was consulted on but is unaffiliated with the case. “Co-ops do this automatically, whether it’s legally allowed or not. Generally, you’re liable if you violate the proprietary lease,” he says. (It was simply a house rule in this case.) “However, if there’s a claim that you violated these documents, but in actuality you did not because you had a right to the animal, then you are entitled to legal fees. When you’re asserting your disability rights, there’s a general rule that the co-op can’t make a claim for legal fees even if you don’t win. They can’t use that [threat] for leverage [because] that has the effect of making some people run away from their right. It’s a very nasty practice and very widespread, too.”
Making a Federal Case of It
After a few months of grieving, Biegel began fighting back. On November 28, 2008, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) alleging that Woodbury Gardens Redevelopment Company Owners Corp. “failed to provide … a person with multiple disabilities, with a reasonable accommodation, in violation of the Fair Housing Act…. [and] unlawfully denied [the] request to keep a medically prescribed emotional support animal … [and then] intimidated, coerced and harassed the … family by, among other things, fining them and threatening them with eviction for keeping the animal.”
After a three-year investigation that ended on September 16, 2011, HUD concluded that Woodbury Gardens had engaged in discriminatory housing practices in violation of the Fair Housing Act. It ordered the co-op to take affirmative steps to remedy the effects of its “illegal, discriminatory conduct … and to prevent similar occurrences in the future.” It also told the co-op not to intimidate, coerce, threaten, or interfere with the Biegel family’s rights under the act, and awarded damages, a civil penalty, and “such additional relief as may be appropriate.”
“The co-op disagrees with … the findings of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the allegations of the Biegels’ complaint,” the board’s attorney, Marc H. Schneider, the managing partner of Schneider Mitola, says. Following the Justice Department’s filing of a lawsuit, he added in a statement, “The co-op disputes the allegations in the complaint and will not litigate the matter in the media.”
“It shocks the conscience as to how cruel and inexorable these people can actually be,” notes Biegel’s present attorney, Meir Moza, principal of Meir Moza & Associates. “There has to be some sort of equilibrium whereby they weigh the needs of the individual versus excluding all pets altogether. It has to do with people understanding there are certain laws that have to be followed” regarding disabled individuals.
As of mid-February, says Moza, “We’re going to have some pretrial conferences. I want to see the other attorney’s attitude toward the case – whether there’s remorse, whether there’s acceptance of responsibility. If I see the same arrogance my client faced, there is not going to be any more discussion – we’ll be going straight to trial, and they’ll face the consequences of a federal jury.”
Death of a Dog – and a Man
Sometimes the matter is more subtle than a straight legal issue of disability law. Sometimes it’s attitudinal. In January, in Manhattan, an actor committed suicide a day after euthanizing his pet because of what he’d felt was harassment by his condo board and building manager. For the condominium, One Lincoln Plaza, on Broadway between 63rd and 64th Streets, his death made unwelcome headlines around the world.
Brooklyn-born Nick Santino, a classically trained actor with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an MBA in finance, had played Officer Anton on the soap opera All My Children on-and-off for three years, then played Father Soto on a six-episode arc of Guiding Light. After a few years of mostly theater and small independent productions, his career began picking up steam once he hit his mid-40s, with a guest role as a hedge fund guru on the TV series Gossip Girl and two appearances as a nightclub owner on television’s Royal Pains.
But this spurt of work and its long daily production schedules meant he often had to leave his pit bull, Rocco, alone in his condo apartment. His board in 2010 had updated its pet policy to prohibit the breed, but Rocco was grandfathered in. And this, some of Santino’s neighbors say, is when the harassment began.
“People were complaining about his dog,” Kevan Cleary – by coincidence, the federal attorney who would later file the Biegel/Woodbury Gardens lawsuit – told the New York Post. “It was open season on him.” Rocco, he said, “was not a barker, but somebody complained that the dog would bark,” resulting in Santino being threatened with a $250 fine. Santino wasn’t allowed to have Rocco in the main elevators or to leave the dog alone in the apartment for more than nine hours.
“Everybody knows that he had been harassed by the building management,” said another neighbor, Lia Pettigrew. “Rocco was the sweetest dog in the world. Rocco wouldn’t hurt a fly,” added James Steven Grant, another neighbor and a dog owner himself.
Yet, on Tuesday, January 24, on his 47th birthday, a pressured Santino had his healthy five-year-old dog euthanized. A day later, he committed suicide by an overdose of pills. “Today, I betrayed my best friend and put down my best friend,” read his suicide note. “Rocco trusted me and I failed him. He didn’t deserve this.”
Death and the Board
John Frazier, an executive vice president of the public relations firm Quinn & Co., to whom a building representative directed a request for comment, told Habitat that the board declined to make a statement.
Board member Marilyn Fireman did claim to the Post, however, “I’m sorry the man is dead. But it has nothing to do with the pet policy.” Although Santino had complained publicly of that policy, “You just assumed that [his suicide] was a result of a board’s decision,” Fireman told the paper.
Since the death, anger has erupted toward the board. “People are still in shock here,” said building resident Cleary. “There’s a picture of [Nick] in the lobby.” Richard Veloso, a friend of Santino’s who walked his dog Daisy with him, wrote on Facebook, “I’m furious over these co-op boards who try and control people’s lives [and] there should be consequences for their actions/harassment.” A Facebook memorial page posted in the wake of the tragedy has garnered heartfelt comments, as has a second one that organized a candlelight vigil at One Lincoln Plaza on February 2.
Santino had tried in vain to find Rocco another home. As for giving him to a shelter or a pit bull rescuer, pet advocates says both venues are often overwhelmed with animals already and at any given time can’t accept more. And as any New Yorker knows, simply moving – and finding someplace affordable that accepts pets – can be extraordinarily difficult. Significantly, Santino was breaking no law or house rule that should have forced him to uproot his life.
Sometimes, however, these stories have relatively happy endings. In Ruskin, Florida, earlier this year, after a TV-news story brought its actions to light, the Bahia Del Sol Condo Association reversed its decision to evict a therapy dog owned by a woman with terminal breast cancer. But other times, as at Woodbury Gardens, a hard-line stance by an authoritarian board can be followed by a tragedy.
“I see a pattern in a lot of the cases where boards cruelly and illogically apply their own laws without regard to the actual laws,” says attorney Moza. “Things end up in a tragedy because of things that could be rectified by common sense and intuition.” When compromise and flexibility are considered weaknesses, and when boards cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, war inevitably has casualties.