Woman's Dog Has Its Day
by David Ashenfelter, Detroit Free Press, February 23,
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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
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
In May 2000, Grad signed an occupancy agreement with Royalwood
Apartments, near Coolidge and Woodward. The agreement included a
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
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
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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