Co-op dogged by charges it won’t allow service pets


BY HEATHER DUBIN  |  The federal government is suing a housing co-op on the Lower East Side on behalf of three residents who are not allowed to keep their emotional support dogs.

The original lawsuit, which was filed against East River Housing Corp., in December 2013, claimed the housing cooperative, located at 573 Grand St., violated the Fair Housing Act, and discriminated against a tenant, Stephanie Aaron, by refusing to accommodate her psychiatric disability.

Aaron has chronic depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and found that the stray dog she took in helped to alleviate her mental health symptoms, the suit states.

Under the Fair Housing Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing providers cannot discriminate against a person based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability.

The co-op has a no-pet clause, and prohibits animals without prior written consent.

Last Friday, the lawsuit was amended to include two additional tenants of the co-op, Amy Eisenberg and Steven Gilbert, who also want to have dogs in the building, and both suffer from mental disorders.

According to the initial lawsuit, Aaron brought home the stray dog, a pit bull, and named her Rosie, in August 2012. Aaron had recently taken a decline. She was feeling “physically ill, unable to socialize and overwhelmed by her circumstances.” But within a few days of taking in Rosie, she noted an improvement in her health.

Aaron attributed her quick turnaround to her new canine companion, and decided to keep her.

About a month later, East River Housing Corp. demanded Aaron remove Rosie by early October 2012. The corporation alleged she had violated a “substantial obligation of [her] tenancy” by having the dog in her apartment.

Aaron then began experiencing more mental health symptoms, and she returned to the co-op with a note from her psychiatrist, dated Sept. 19, 2012, that requested Rosie remain in the apartment as a “service dog and emotional support animal.”

The co-op did not respond, and instead issued a notice for Aaron, a resident since 2003, to vacate her apartment by November 2012.

Following a second letter from Aaron’s psychiatrist, the co-op denied the request, on the grounds that the word “disabled” was not used in the letter. Eviction proceedings continued with a court date scheduled for late November. A third request from the psychiatrist was made, stating Aaron “is entitled to a reasonable accommodation to facilitate her dealing with the limitations of her disabling conditions.”

That December, Aaron began seeing a clinical psychologist. That same month, she also filed a complaint with HUD, which found there was cause to believe the co-op had violated the Fair Housing Act, leading to the current federal lawsuit. The eviction issue has been placed on hold until the case’s completion.

The other two residents who are now part of the lawsuit, Eisenberg and Gilbert, are also claiming discrimination and violation of the Fair Housing Act, based on their mental disabilities. Each of them has filed a separate complaint with HUD, which found reasonable cause that the co-op was in violation for each case.

Eisenberg has lived in the building since 1998, and suffers from P.T.S.D., with symptoms that manifest as depression, anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia. The lawsuit details that Eisenberg brought home Ruby, reportedly a cockapoo — a cocker spaniel/poodle mix — in February 2012, and that Ruby is a trained and registered service dog.

Ruby’s presence has helped reduce Eisenberg’s P.T.S.D. symptoms, the suit maintains. The dog also fetches medication for Eisenberg if she is unable to do so.

The co-op requested Eisenberg remove Ruby from her apartment, and gave her 10 days to so in April 2012. She refused, and the co-op moved forward with eviction proceedings against her.

Eisenberg submitted a note from her internist to the co-op that stated she has a “disability.” Ruby enhances Eisenberg’s life, the doctor wrote, adding, “The presence of the dog is necessary for [Eisenberg’s] emotional health.” The co-op disagreed with the letter, and the eviction case went to Housing Court, where it was adjourned several times.

The third plaintiff, Gilbert, has lived at East River Houses since 2004, and has chronic psychiatric conditions with limited social interaction abilities. In November 2011, Gilbert had a friend stay with him at his apartment who brought along her dog, Olive Oil. While the dog was in his home, Gilbert experienced relief from his mental disabilities.

However, the co-op requested Gilbert remove Olive Oil from his apartment and gave him 10 days to do so at the end of November. He did not, and the co-op then initiated eviction proceedings against him. A letter was sent to the co-op from Gilbert’s psychiatrist, who stated, “The presence of this animal is necessary for [Gilbert’s] mental health.”

The co-op did not respond to the letter, and a hearing was scheduled in Housing Court for February 2012. In advance of the hearing, Gilbert decided to remove Olive Oil from his apartment.

In mid-February, Gilbert filed a complaint with HUD, which then referred it to the New York State Division of Human Rights. A judge dismissed the eviction proceeding, but the co-op sought attorney fees for the Housing Court case, unless Gilbert dropped the matter at the Division of Human Rights.

However, D.H.R. found cause that Gilbert’s rights had been violated, and a hearing was scheduled. Yet, Gilbert’s doctor, who had written a letter on his behalf, withdrew as his psychiatrist, and Gilbert let the complaint go.

In January 2013, Gilbert submitted a request to the co-op for an emotional-support dog due to his disability, along with notes from two doctors and a psychotherapist. Shortly after that, the co-op recommenced its effort to recover attorney fees from the Housing Court case. The court found in favor of the co-op and awarded it $30,087.29 in legal fees.

Gilbert’s second request for a dog was met with a denial, which included notification that the co-op had “incurred approximately $100,000 in legal fees” involving Housing Court and the D.H.R. case, which, the co-op charged, could be construed as “additional rent.”

The lawsuit for all three plaintiffs, which is now pending, seeks relief from violation of the Fair Housing Act, monetary damages, and a civil penalty against East River Housing Corp.

The co-op’s management declined comment, and cited their current policy that prohibits them from talking about an ongoing lawsuit. A representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined to comment on the case.