Hazel Sanders

Hazel Sanders, who has a disability, says she needs a big dog like Jurnee to support her weight and help her stand up if she falls. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / October 22, 2012)

Hazel Sanders depends on her Rottweiler, Jurnee, to get her out walking, which she needs for a disabling knee condition, and to help her up if she falls. Two doctors have written letters saying the dog is an important part of her treatment, and she considers it as much a help as a seeing-eye dog is for a blind person.

"It's not a pet; she's my legs," said Sanders, who is 70 and lives in Laurel. "I depend on the dog. ... She keeps me going."

Now, though, the 69-pound dog could stand between Sanders and a new home.

Sanders, who can't afford her current apartment and is facing eviction, has applied for a subsidized apartment in Jessup. But she has been told that the management of the complex won't allow a service animal exception to its no-pets policy, and its lawyer cites a recent Maryland Court of Appeals case labeling some dogs "inherently dangerous."

Sanders said the community manager at Morningside Park in Jessup told her last month that the Rottweiler would not be allowed. Her lawyer says that under federal laws covering housing and the rights of disabled people, Morningside Park must make a "reasonable accommodation" and allow an exception for the dog.

But Stuart Sagal, lawyer for Equity Management, which runs the apartment house for elderly people, says the request is not reasonable because Sanders' dog is a Rottweiler — a breed lumped together with pit bulls as particularly vicious in a study cited in the Maryland Court of Appeals opinion.

"It's not reasonable to allow Rottweilers on the property," said Sagal, adding that Sanders' application was received on Oct. 31 and is still being processed. Although the appeals court ruling dealt only with pit bulls, Sagal said, Rottweilers are "very likely to be the next breed" singled out by a court as dangerous.

An expert on animal law said Sanders' problem illustrates the potentially far-reaching consequences of the court's opinion, and shows why animal advocates were so concerned when it was issued in April. The opinion has led to "hysteria, and legally it's created a mess," said Anne Benaroya, executive director of the Maryland Animal Law Center.

The 4-3 ruling by Maryland's highest court established a new liability standard in dog bite cases involving pit bulls. In the past, dog owners and landlords were liable if it could be proved that they knew the attacking dog had a history of aggression. Under the new standard — established by the April ruling and a motion granted a month later — plaintiffs have to prove only that the dog involved in the attack is a pure-breed "pit bull."

The court did not specify which breeds should be considered "pit bulls," a vernacular term applied to a number of breeds, including Staffordshire terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and American pit bull terrier.

The case that led to the ruling did not involve a Rottweiler, but the 25-page opinion quotes from a study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that examined dog attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1996. "Rottweilers and pit bull type dogs accounted for 67 percent" of human deaths from dog bites, the article said. "It is extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60 percent of dogs in the United States during that period."

Sara C. Wilkinson of the Legal Aid Bureau, who is representing Sanders, said Sagal's argument doesn't hold up. She said that there's no Maryland law on Rottweilers, that Sanders' dog has no history of aggressive behavior, and that "most importantly, federal anti-discrimination law protecting the disabled should trump a brief mention of a 12-year-old veterinary article in a case regarding pit bulls."

Wilkinson said she has received no response from Equity Management to a letter she sent on Oct. 15, but she is "hoping to negotiate" a solution. Meanwhile, Sanders has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Howard County Office of Human Rights.

Melody Taylor-Blancher, HUD's regional director for fair housing equal opportunity, would not comment on Sanders' case specifically, but said agency guidelines discourage a "blanket policy as it relates to assistance animals," including apartment house rules that would bar a particular breed. To get an exception to the "reasonable accommodation" provision, the law says, a housing provider must show that the accommodation would impose "an undue financial and administrative burden."

Benaroya said the Court of Appeals opinion "has huge unintended consequences ... it affects every dog that could possibly, arguably, remotely be characterized as a pit bull." She said it has prompted apartment owners to ban pit bulls, has further stigmatized the dogs and their owners, and will likely lead to a flood of lawsuits.

Benaroya considers Equity Management's concerns about liability "legitimate," but she said the decision to bar Sanders would be justified only if her dog had a history of aggressive behavior. She argued that the Court of Appeals opinion does not apply to this situation, as it involves only pit bulls.

"Under the Fair Housing Act line of cases I've read, she wins," said Benaroya, who said she's been practicing law strictly dealing with animals in Maryland for 14 years. "She's got a slam dunk."

Sagal said Equity Management would be willing to grant the exception for a different breed.

"No one wants to not allow a reasonable accommodation," said Sagal. "The question is, 'What is reasonable?' … If this were a cocker spaniel there would be no hesitation to approve it."