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Article of Interest - Disabilities

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Bridges4Kids LogoDisabled Woman's Dog Has Its Day
by David Ashenfelter, Detroit Free Press, February 23, 2005
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Joyce Grad, 55, of Birmingham sits with Lady in her apartment on Tuesday. A federal jury in Detroit sided with Grad in a lawsuit that may have a big impact on mentally ill people who request no-pet waivers from condos and co-op boards.

All Joyce Grad wanted from her Royal Oak cooperative apartment board was a waiver of its no-pet policy so she could buy a dog to help her cope with debilitating depression.

What she got instead was a cold rejection.

But last week, a federal court jury in Detroit sided with the 55-year-old disabled registered nurse in a decision that could solidify the right of mentally ill people to obtain exceptions to no-pet policies in apartment, condominium and cooperative housing complexes.

The verdict, which awarded $14,209 in actual damages and $300,000 in punitive damages to Grad, is believed to be the first federal jury verdict to recognize mental illness as a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act. It also may be the first federal verdict that, in effect, recognizes the contention that dogs are good for one's mental health.

"I feel vindicated," Grad said Tuesday, four days after an eight-member jury reached its verdict. The unanimous decision came Friday after 5 1/2 hours of deliberations over two days.

The lawyer for the defendants -- Patrick Rode of Bloomfield Hills -- didn't return calls seeking comment. Neither did representatives of Royalwood Cooperative Apartments in Royal Oak, Schostak Brothers & Co. in Southfield, which manages the 97-unit complex, or property manager Richard Cail.

Grad, who grew up in Oakland County, has been living on Social Security disability for 10 years, the result of severe bi-polar disorder, which manifests itself as debilitating depression. The problem is a result of the extreme physical and emotional abuse she suffered as a child, her lawyer, Gabrielle Frampton of the Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, said Tuesday. Trial testimony indicated that Grad's condition causes her to neglect herself.

In May 2000, Grad signed an occupancy agreement with Royalwood Apartments, near Coolidge and Woodward. The agreement included a pet ban.

Six months later, Grad asked the cooperative board for a waiver, believing that a small emotional-assistance dog would help improve the quality of her life. Her psychiatrist and psychologist submitted letters vouching for her request.

But the cooperative board summarily denied her request.

A board member testified at last week's trial that members believed Grad had concocted the story to try to sidestep the co-op's ban.

Defeated, Grad decided to move in January 2001 into a more expensive apartment in Birmingham that would allow her to have a dog. Four months later she found an ad in the paper for Lady, a 10-pound gray poodle she purchased for $300. She trained Lady herself because she couldn't afford the cost of a trained dog. Her training aid of choice: Slim Jim beef treats.

Later that year, at the behest of Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, Grad filed a discrimination complaint against the co-op with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Fair Housing Act. The complaint alleged that the co-op failed to make a reasonable accommodation for her need for an emotional-assistance dog.

HUD investigated and, in June 2003, issued a civil complaint against the defendants.

Rather than proceed administratively through HUD, the defendants opted to have the case heard in U.S. District Court in Detroit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Levy represented the government. Frampton and her agency intervened on Grad's behalf.

The result was a 6-day trial before U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor featuring testimony from about a dozen witnesses, including Grad, her doctors, co-op board members, the property manager and animal and health experts.

Last August, Oakland County Circuit Judge Fred Mester upheld a Michigan Civil Rights Commission ruling that faulted the same cooperative with refusing to reasonably accommodate another mentally disabled woman by allowing her to keep a dog.

In response to that decision, Rode said: "The dog, as far as the cooperative is concerned, is nothing more than a pet."

Grad said Tuesday that Lady, through relentless pestering, forces her to get out of bed in the morning, demands to be fed and taken for walks, and helps her to snap back to reality when depression or a panic attack sets in.

Although housing complexes that ban pets routinely grant waivers for the deaf or blind to have assistance dogs, they have been slow to extend the exceptions to people who suffer from mental illness, which is more difficult to quantify than physical disabilities, Frampton said. Frampton's agency is a state- and federally-funded nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.

Frampton, who met with jurors after the verdict, said jurors told her they were struck by the testimony from a co-op board member who said she thought Grad was trying to put one over on the co-op, and that no psychiatric condition would justify granting a waiver to the no-pet ban.

Frampton said she thinks the defendants will appeal the verdict to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. If the appeals court sides with Grad, it would secure the rights of the mentally ill to obtain emotional-assistance dogs in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee and could impact other federal districts, Frampton said.

"I hope this sends a clear message to housing providers to know and respect the law," Frampton said.

Grad agreed: "A lot of people with severe emotional problems, especially people without much family support, would live better if they had an animal ... Lady is my life.

"When I don't want to get up in morning, she gets in my face with her cold wet nose and is unrelenting until I get up," Grad said. "I've trained her that if I don't get up by 7, she is to go to door and bark until help arrives."

    

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