Hazel Sanders and her Rottweiler service dog, Jurnee, are preparing to move into an apartment she can afford after the management company agreed to drop objections based on the Maryland Court of Appeals decision earlier this year defining pit bulls as inherently dangerous animals.
Sanders reached agreement in mediation last week through the Howard County Office of Human Rights, where she had filed a complaint against Equity Management II for refusing to make an exception to its no-pets policy for a service dog, as federal law requires.
Equity runs the Morningside Park Apartments for elderly people in Jessup, a complex owned by the Howard County Housing Commission.
"I was happy about being able to get the apartment," said Sanders, 70, who has been living since the weekend at a Red Roof Inn in Prince George's County.
Sanders was evicted from her apartment in Laurel because she could not afford to pay the rent after her daughter moved out in September, and sought a place at Morningside Park. She said she's still working out how she'll fulfill the terms of the mediation agreement, which calls for an "assessment" of the 69-pound dog by an animal behavior specialist before she can move into the one-bedroom apartment by early January.
Stuart Sagal, a lawyer for Equity, said in November that allowing the Rottweiler would go beyond the "reasonable accommodation" for service animals required by the federal Fair Housing Act.
He based his argument on the fact that the Court of Appeals opinion in the spring — dealing with pit bulls, not Rottweilers — quoted a veterinary journal article that said in an 18-year study period, the two breeds accounted for two-thirds of human deaths from dog bites. That number was well out of proportion to their percentage of the dog population overall, the study said.
The court ruling changed the legal liability standard in dog bite cases involving pit bulls, making it easier for plaintiffs to win lawsuits. As a result of the ruling, plaintiffs would have to show only that the dog involved was a pit bull, not that it had bitten someone before. The court did not define the generic term "pit bull" by naming specific breeds.
Animal advocates said they feared the ruling would make worse the stigma about the dogs and their owners, and perhaps make it more difficult for the dogs to be adopted and for owners to rent apartments. Landlords worried that it would increase their insurance costs.
Sara C. Wilkinson, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Bureau Inc., who represented Sanders, said the issue of the Court of Appeals case never came up in the four- to five-hour mediation session last Thursday at the Howard County Office of Human Rights, in Columbia. Senior assistant county solicitor Lou Ruzzi took part, along with an Equity agent and Tom Carbo, the executive director of the housing commission, a state housing authority separate from county government.
Jurnee is about a year old, the third Rottweiler that Sanders has had as a service dog since 1986 to help her manage a disabling arthritic knee condition. Two doctors have written letters saying the dog is an important part of her treatment.
Sanders said she is now looking for an animal behaviorist to evaluate the dog. Ruzzi said the assessment is to find out if Jurnee needs other training, or if there are other steps Sanders would need to pursue to make sure she can perform the service Sanders needs.
The agreement also calls for Sanders to drop the complaint against Equity that she filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but she said this week a HUD representative has asked to see the settlement agreement before the agency decides what to do about the complaint. Ruzzi said Sanders would only be asked to make clear to HUD that "the county has accommodated her disability, which is why she signed off on the agreement."
The rent for the one-bedroom apartment will be $213, Sanders said, about a third of her monthly Supplemental Security Income of $698. She said two local organizations that provide help for homeless people are paying for her to stay at the Red Roof Inn, and a local church provided volunteers to move all her belongings into storage.