Geoffrey Mazel in Board Operations on October 15, 2013
A. When I became an attorney many years ago and started representing co-op boards, I never imagined the amount of time and energy I would spend over disputes involving pets in cooperatives. I expend a great deal of energy enforcing my clients' "No Pet Rule" against offending shareholders, but also spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to my board clients why they cannot enforce their "No Pet Rule" in many instances.
A number of co-ops in New York City, such as yours, have pet prohibitions in their proprietary lease and/or house rules. The prohibition against pets is commonplace and, for the most part, has existed since the cooperative corporation was formed. However, in recent years, there have been several legal developments rendering these no pet rules unenforceable. Therefore, even though a co-op may have a no-pet policy, there still may be pets there — and it is legal.
"The Pet Law"
In 1983, the city of New York passed a local law commonly known as "The Pet Law," which states that a property owner, such as a co-op board, must begin a legal proceeding within three months of receiving notice that a shareholder has a pet. If the resident openly and flagrantly walked the pet in front of the management office every day, or if the superintendent came into the apartment where the pet resided, the board would need to begin the legal proceeding within three months of such notice.
If the co-op does not start legal action, the pet prohibition of that co-op's proprietary lease or house rules is deemed waived. At that point, a shareholder may have the legal right to keep the pet. Many proprietary leases require predicate notices to be served on the shareholder before litigation can begin, giving him or her the opportunity to cure. If he or she fails to do so, a termination notice, which requires a 30-day lead time, is sent.
Even if a co-op board is able to start a termination proceeding on time, the shareholder may still be able to keep the pet if it can be shown that the shareholder is disabled. Federal, state, and city laws allow a companion pet as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Usually the disability asserted in these cases would be mental and the shareholder would need to provide medical evidence that a companion pet would provide emotional and medical benefits.
Watch Our for "Discrimination" Claims
How does the co-op board protect the integrity of its pet policy without discriminating against a disabled shareholder's rights to a reasonable accommodation? If a board proceeds with an eviction, it can be subject to a lawsuit for discrimination and liable for punitive damages and legal fees of the shareholder.
The first thing the co-op board needs to do upon learning of the shareholder's alleged disability and resulting need for a companion pet is to request medical evidence proving the existence of the disability. This evidence will come in the form of a doctor's report, and it should clearly outline the nature of the disability and the medical necessity of the accommodation by the treating medical doctor.
A good rule of thumb is to get the board's counsel involved early to eliminate any potential liability and to ensure that proper decisions are made. This issue is not going away any time soon.
For detailed specifics, see "'Disability Dog' Scams: NYC Explains How to Tell Them from Legitimate Claims."
Geoffrey Mazel is a principal of the law firm Hankin & Mazel.
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