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Report: Two East River Residents Can Keep Service Dogs; Co-op Must Pay $85,000

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Photo: East River Co-op website.
Photo: East River Co-op website.

The long battle between the East River Cooperative and three owners of service dogs appears to be ending.

Last year, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Grand Street co-op. Today the Post reports that a settlement is in the works:

Under a settlement ironed out Thursday in Manhattan federal court, East River Housing Corp. agreed to pay co-op owners Amy Einsenberg and Steven Gilbert $55,000 and $30,000 each, respectively, and let them keep their service pets. However, Stephanie Aaron, 53, must either find a new place to live in one year or a new owner for her pooch after neighbors complained that her pet was too loud and violent.

The lawsuit claimed that the co-op violated the Fair Housing Act when it ordered the residents to get rid of the dogs. The housing complex only allows people to keep dogs with “prior written consent.” They all said they needed the pets for mental health reasons.

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  1. Were the dogs in question truly service dogs–that is, trained dogs with a specific function like a seeing-eye dog–or were they part of the great “companion animal” con that many self-centered people use to get around rules to protect common property? It’s very, very easy to have just about any animal declared a “companion pet”; $99 and a mail-order shrink will send you a letter. Even organizations that support service dogs are getting sick of the companion animal BS and the backlash it is starting to cause.

  2. These were emotional support animals, not service animals.

    But the law says housing providers have to provide reasonable accommodation for emotional support animals as well as service animals. That doesn’t mean the building has to accommodate stray pit bulls or pets of people who get a $99 letter from a mail order shrink, but they need to have some process in place so that people with a genuine, documented need can have an appropriate emotional support animal.

  3. Thanks, that’s what I suspected. And yes, the building DOES have to accommodate people who get the mail-order letter. I was wrong about $99…the cheapest is more like $70. Patricia Marx had a good story about it in the October 20, 2014, New Yorker. It’s even possible to get a letter from a psychologist stating that you need an emotional support animal (ESA) simply by filling out an on-line questionnaire. And, of course, coughing up a small fee. The law is vague and easily (and widely) abused.

    BTW, in light of the above, I think the Board at the co-op might have made an error in judgement pursuing this case. I’ve been on a condo board for close to 20 years. We have a “pet friendly” building but have faced many, many expensive incidents of damage, attacks, even a case were a resident had to be taken to the ER. We’ve considered cracking down, but when in comes to pets, our right to control our own property is largely out of our hands. Very frustrating.

  4. Everybody on that board should be tarred and feathered. What a bunch of clowns! Whether or not you agree with the law, the law has been clear and the writing has been on the wall for years now: anything less than a sane pet policy leads to lawsuits and judgments. Either face reality or keep losing money.

  5. The building has to “make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a resident with a disability] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

    I don’t think it’s “unreasonable” for the building to ask for better documentation of a disability than an online form letter. That doesn’t mean the building won’t get sued if they refuse to allow a support animal for a resident with a form letter issued by an online “therapist” they have never met, but not a lot of lawyers are going to want that case, especially if the building makes it clear what documentation IS good enough to get an accommodation.

    The East River board may very well have made an error in pursuing these cases. They almost certainly made an error in sticking with their blanket “no pets” policy for so long. But presumably their settlement with the DOJ includes an update to their policies so that going forward people with legitimate needs for emotional support animals will have a clear procedure for getting their pets approved.

  6. What has gone untmentioned is the approximately $1 million plus East River paid its lawyer to pursue this matter – this in addition to the $85,000 penalty in the settlement. The Board pursued this matter without surveying the cooperators as to whether we thought this issue was a priority. Nor would the Board’s hand-picked lawyer reveal, at an annual meeting, how much East River had paid him – this when asked by a cooperator whose monthly maintenance helps pay for the lawyer who is allegedly representing all of us. In short, cooperators were left in the dark on this, even as we were left paying the bills.
    The Board goes chintzy on other things – like getting furniture for the lobbies – and then wastes money on this. Think of all the other things we could have done with that money! The Board’s decision to pursue this matter and spend lavishly – onloy to lose has left a lot of us fuming. What an utter waste!.

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