Coop loses big on companion animal lawsuits
It was a quiet, peaceful community, until one resident of a housing cooperative insisted on keeping a pet. Many housing coops do not allow pets in their units. The member was advised she could not keep her dog, even though the member had a note from her doctor diagnosing the pet as a companion animal for psychological reasons.
Without consulting legal counsel, the Board President took matters into the President’s own hands and directed that the member be evicted. Upon being sued for eviction, the member filed a complaint with HUD. HUD’s attorneys got involved, and the member also retained a private attorney. Suddenly a simple eviction proceeding had mushroomed into a federal case against the Cooperative. The Cooperative Board got dragged into the litigation and were all deposed; which revealed confusion and finger pointing. The cooperative retained legal counsel but it was too little, too late. Rather than advising the client to follow the law, the lawyers were told by the President to fight all the way. The case went to trial, and the Board of the cooperative was hit with a judgment of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Board had to obtain a mortgage just to pay the judgment.
The Board of Director then hired legal counsel that was familiar with cooperative law including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. The new legal team entered the case post-judgment, at a time where the cooperative’s bank accounts were going to be garnished in order to pay the judgment. The lawyers skillfully negotiated a 60% reduction in the judgment, and the cooperative was able to pay the balance of their judgment.
In the end, the member who brought the suit got to keep her dog. The hard lesson the cooperative learned was that it takes experienced legal counsel to not only solve problems, but protect the Board’s interests going forward. Further, it is in the best interests of the Board of Directors and the cooperative to keep the line between the personal passion of Board members and the rule of law clear and distinct. Competent legal counsel not only defends their clients’ interests, but also prevents and protects them through experienced legal advice and guidance.
Current cooperative legal counsel Randall A. Pentiuk observed that “This Coop suffered from a former Board member that thought she knew the law but didn’t. This is why Board members and even Management Agents should know their limitations, and Boards should seek competent legal advice in a timely manner to avoid these costly errors!”
The cooperative’s legal team ultimately drafted a comprehensive animal and companion animal policy, which was adopted by the cooperative, and also trained all of their managers and board members in the legal implications of pets and companion animals. It is in the board’s best interest to establish clear lines of communication and expectations between management companies and attorneys, and avoid the hassle of expensive litigation proceedings. .