Cat in condo? OK. Companion dog? No way
by Dan Browning
The age-old question of which is better, cats or dogs, has landed in federal court in Minneapolis.
The unusual issue has provoked a big legal fight between a disabled Minneapolis woman and the board overseeing a condominium where she's been a longtime resident.
Diane Orenstein's doctor, her psychologist and her social worker all say that a trained "companion dog" would help the 55-year-old woman cope with anxiety, depression and social isolation that she suffers because of brain damage.
But the Calhoun-Isles Condominium Association isn't buying it.
The association forbids dogs in the high-rise units where Orenstein lives, and has refused six requests in the past 18 months to make a special accommodation. "The Association encourages Ms. Orenstein to consider the therapeutic benefits that keeping a cat may provide," an attorney for the group wrote in response to her requests. Condominium rules allow cats and small birds in her building, but not dogs.
Orenstein's attorneys with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid filed a discrimination lawsuit alleging that the condo association and Gittleman Management Corp. are violating the federal Fair Housing Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act by refusing to make special accommodations for Orenstein's disability.
Gittleman, based in Bloomington, manages 34 townhouses and 109 high-rise apartment-style units in a complex just north of Lake Calhoun.
Orenstein declined a request to be interviewed or photographed, said Michael Fargione, Legal Aid's litigation director.
"Ordinary events can lead to her feeling overwhelmed and can put her into a downward spiral in which it becomes difficult for her to engage in any of her normal activities. Her becoming anxious and upset leads to isolation and withdrawal," Fargione wrote in an exhibit he filed with the suit.
The Social Security Administration determined that Orenstein qualified for disability benefits as of mid-May, although her condition has existed since she suffered a traumatic brain injury from a fall in 2006 and another in 2010.
Why a dog?
Karen Larson-Hahn, a psychologist with Courage Center, wrote a letter supporting Orenstein's efforts to get a companion dog, as did Dr. Ayesha Rehman, a psychiatrist at Hennepin County Medical Center.
"Caring for a dog would provide meaning and the unconditional love offered by a dog and would help to improve self-esteem and reduce stress. The deed to walk a dog daily for exercise would provide physical and emotional benefit for Diane," Larson-Hahn wrote.
Tanya Kern, her clinical social worker, said a having a dog would make "significant therapeutic benefits."
Orenstein wants to get a small dog called a Cavalier King Charles spaniel from Puppy Love Caring Canines in Hugo. The breed typically weighs about 15 pounds, the size of a large cat, and has an affectionate disposition, said Grete Krause, who founded Puppy Love 12 years ago to custom-train service dogs.
"They always are smiling at you," she said.
Krause said her companion dogs help people who have depression and anxiety disorders to focus on something outside of themselves. During walks, dogs spark social interactions that help people who tend to isolate themselves, she said.
"I've known people with cats that have similar benefits," Krause said. "But you don't have to take a cat outside to go for a walk."
Attorneys for the association demanded more and more evidence that Orenstein was disabled. They noted that residents of the high-rise must share common areas and a dog creates the potential for damage, additional cleanup work for staff, and potential conflicts with other residents.
Orenstein's lawyers then proposed a four-month trial period.
"The Association does not conduct behavioral evaluations," replied Jeffrey R. Underhill, one of the association's attorneys, in a letter last October.
Underhill continued to question whether Orenstein met the legal threshold for disability accommodations even after her attorneys notified him that she was approved by the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. In a letter last July, he wrote that neither Orenstein nor her psychologist seem to have considered "the benefits a cat would provide."
"If Ms. Orenstein is indeed handicapped, as defined under applicable law, the Association feels that permitting Ms. Orenstein to keep a cat reasonably accommodates her disability," Underhill wrote.
Fargione, exasperated, responded Aug. 1.
"The medical professionals have not suggested a cat," he wrote. "As a species, cats are certainly not noted for welcoming an owner home from work or enjoying a walk on a leash. The psychologist's characterization of benefits from the 'unconditional love offered by a dog' is not typically applied to cats, which are more typically described as independent," he said.
Orenstein's lawsuit seeks a judgment declaring that the defendants have violated her civil rights. She seeks unspecified monetary damages for violating the law, plus compensatory damages of $250 a month for every month going forward that she's not allowed to have a dog, plus attorney fees and costs.
Einar Hanson, a Red Wing attorney who represents the nonprofit condo association, said his clients hold no ill will toward Orenstein. But the condo's board members believe they must enforce the rules that were established for the "community of owners" in the high-rise, he said.
"It's not something that the board relishes, having to be in this situation," Hanson said.