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Fido Feels Your Pain

The Low-Down

When dealing with illegal pets, time is of the essence. The state Pet Law requires the landlord to begin an action within 90 days of discovering the forbidden pet. As applied to a co-op, it might just as well be 30 days. Although the law says you must begin the action within 90 days, you can’t do that until you have served a notice to cure, followed by a termination notice. Doing that can take from 45 to 60 days.

Boards in such situations have another problem. The resident with the dog will typically file a complaint with either the state Division of Human Rights, or the New York City Commission on Human Rights, or the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Generally speaking, you’ll get a call from somebody at one of these agencies. Their position is, “We’re going to pursue this against you. You’re going to face serious penalties.”

The Weigh-In

On the one hand, boards are getting pressure from the Commission on Human Rights and the applicant for the accommodation. On the other hand, they are getting pressure from their shareholders who moved into this building and expect it to be pet-free. Many are allergic to dogs or afraid of them. Many make complaints about the barking. The board is caught in the middle. I have to tell my clients: “Listen. If you feel it’s important enough to fight this, you are going to have to litigate, potentially. You are dealing, at least in the pre-trial, pre-adjudicatory stage, with an entity that is looking to pressure you to resolve this matter, and basically prosecuting you. It could take a year. It could take longer. The board will have to notify its insurance carrier. There’s the possibility of a damage claim.”

If a claim is made, the insurance company may assign a lawyer, so the board may save some legal fees, but not always. When the complaint is made, it could lead to litigation. A footnote will probably have to be put in the annual financial statement that a claim of discrimination was made.

The Outcome

The Commission on Human Rights and the State Division of Human Rights are acting, in effect, not as an investigative body but as prosecutors. They say: “The board can’t ask questions about how long they’ve been going to a doctor or whether they’re getting prescriptions. This is too private.” This does not accord with the law. This is intimidating, obviously, when all the board is doing is trying to uphold its rules and make sure that the accommodation request is for a genuine need.

The Take-Away

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a proliferation of claims that some individuals are entitled to keep dogs, despite rules prohibiting them. They claim they’re entitled to a reasonable “accommodation” based on their having a disability. They give a letter from their internist – I’ve had them from gastroenterologists, endocrinologists, and chiropractors – saying that “the applicant is depressed. He’s anxious, and he requires an accommodation. I prescribe Fido as the solution.” I’ve had several situations where they get the doctor’s letter before they get the dog and, in fact, they do not have a history of psychiatric treatment. (There are, of course, legitimate cases where a board would act properly by granting permission.)

If the board members believe the request is bogus, they should pursue it. They are likely to face a more sympathetic tribunal through the courts. They have to be willing to deal with this over the long term. If they’re not, then that means you have a dog. Then, somebody else gets a dog. People start complaining: “Why do we have dogs?” The more exceptions you make, the more likely it is that there’ll be pressure to change the policy.

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