Doggy Lawsuit

September 8th, 2014

Residents of the East River Housing Coop on the Lower East Side of have brought a federal lawsuit against the board and managers of their building. The 1,627 unit apartment building has had a strict, 84-year long policy of not allowing pets and the current residents are seeking to change that.

The board has been trying to evict the dogs of three residents, and the tenants themselves if they refuse to comply. All three residents have cited the medical necessity of having the dogs, in helping them stabilize depression, anxiety and other afflictions. The Housing Board’s position is that since the residents sought the exemptions only after the building found out about the dogs, their doctors’ notes and therapeutic claims are contrived. The tenants are receiving assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with their case.

Bradley Silverbush, the board’s lawyer, says, “The board has no problem accommodating pets. The problem is with people trying to sneak in their animals and then thinking they can pull a fast one when they get caught.” Unfortunately for the Board, HUD did not see this as deception, and actually viewed it as a form of discrimination. After a series of losses for the three residents in housing and state appeals courts, the tenants filed complaints with HUD, arguing that the building was discriminating on the basis of disability and thereby violating their rights under the Fair Housing Act. The Housing agency agreed and referred the cases to the Department of Justice, which sued the co-op in federal court in Manhattan.

Stephanie Aaron, one of the East River Housing tenants involved in the eviction fight, readily admits that she knew the rules and had no intention of keeping the abandoned dog that she found. But, soon after she rescued Rosie, she realized how positively she affected her life by helping her cope with the depression she had since childhood. Even her therapist agreed, and wrote a note to the Board stating it would be good for her health to keep Rosie. The board rejected the request and instead took Ms. Aaron to housing court, where the commission said: “The evidence does not support that complainant’s dog is necessary, as opposed to helpful, to the use and enjoyment of her home.” Her appeal to the state’s Human Rights Commission was also rejected.

Steven Gilbert, another of the three parties in the suit, does not even have a dog, but after watching a friend’s, decided he wanted to get one. He requested a waiver on the same grounds; that the dog had improved his mental health. He was rejected on the same grounds; for asking after the fact. Lawyers for boards and landlords worry that if the lawsuit succeeds, it could create a stampede of new animals living in buildings. How much these pets help people remains a matter of dispute, and many tenants prefer to live in animal free environments.

Amy Eisenberg, the third member of the suit, got a Cockatoo following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the stress it brought upon her. Even though her doctor, who initially supported the claim, has reversed his position, the government continues to support her case.

A key issue in the case is that dozens of other dogs are known to be living at East River Housing Co-Op. Furthermore, part of the case against Ms. Aaron involves a fight Rosie had with another resident’s dog, and that person has faced no punishment from the board. The Board maintains that these dogs belong to longtime tenants or have managed to slip through a city loophole that allows tenants to keep pets if they have lived openly in the building for 90 days without objection.