Melissa Phillips gets to stay in her Newhallville apartment. But thanks to a landmark court ruling about the rights of canine and human tenants, “Mellow” has to go.
That was the result of a court-mandated trade-off last week involving Phillips, a 33-year-old pole-dancing instructor, her beloved Yorkshire Terrier-Shih Tzu cross-breed, and Renaissance Management, the landlord at her Shelton Avenue apartment complex, Presidential Village. It set a precedent for renters in Connecticut: Good news for humans, bad news for pets.
The action took place in the state housing court on Elm Street, ending a two-year legal battle that wound its way through the court system. The doggie eviction case limited the applicability of federally mandated disability protections, but it also expanded tenants’ rights in housing court to argue that an eviction might be a disproportionate response to a broken lease.
The loss of her furry, 16-pound friend has also devastated Phillips, who cried in New Haven Legal Assistance Association’s offices on a recent afternoon. For almost an hour, she talked about how Mellow calmed her through rough times, particularly since she adopted her sister’s kids, after their mother was diagnosed with a mental disorder.
“It’s a very hard situation, losing my mom and taking in the kids. I rely on the unconditional love that the dog gives me,” she explained. “I’ll be honest, I’m dealing with teenagers. It doesn’t always seem like they’re grateful. It doesn’t always seem like I’m doing the right thing. With him, it’s always okay.”
Phillips has spent most of her life in her mother’s federally subsidized apartment unit in Presidential Village. After her daughter’s mental illness, the grandmother became the guardian for Phillips’ four nieces and nephews.
Mellow moved in around 2007, after a cat died. Technically, the lease said the family wasn’t supposed to have any pets. But the landlord at the time, Renaissance Management CEO Wendell Harp, the current mayor’s late husband, never enforced the rule.
In 2011, after her mother died at home from cancer, Phillips became the head of household and the guardian for her sister’s four kids. She didn’t sign a new lease, however, until Sept. 2013. By that time Wendell Harp had died; his son Matthew took over the business.
As she read over the document, Phillips ignored a clause forbidding dogs, expecting that Renaissance Management had long known about her pet. That’s because the family made no effort to hide Mellow’s presence. It took him for walks around the complex, always remembering to clean up the droppings, she said.
In May 2015, Phillips received a pre-termination notice, arguing she had violated the lease’s no-pet provision. Both she and Mellow would have to leave.
She fought the case by herself in housing court. Phillips argued that Mellow was effectively an “emotional support dog,” a federally mandated accommodation for those with a disability. In the spirit of that law, Phillips said, her dog should be allowed to stay in the federal Section 8 rent-subsidized apartment.
Judge Anthony Avallone agreed with her. He then evaluated the harms on both sides.
“The court has weighted the harm to the plaintiff that would come from [Mellow’s] continued presence … and the harm that would come to [Phillips’ niece] from having [Mellow] removed from the household and finds that the equities favor the defendant,” Avallone wrote in his opinion. “Therefore, the court invokes its equitable powers to rule in favor of the defendant.”
Renaissance appealed Avallone’s ruling.
Based on her experience in housing court, Shelley White, legal aid’s head of litigation, said self-represented tenants don’t usually prevail against landlords and their lawyers, and they don’t usually need to continue to defend their position in an appellate court.
David Schancupp, Harp’s attorney, said that the appellate system is there for a reason. “Sometimes, that’s what you have to do when the lower court doesn’t get it right,” he said in a phone interview. The case eventually landed before the Connecticut Supreme Court.
New Haven Legal Assistance Association found out that Harp simultaneously filed a separate eviction case for nonpayment of rent (after raising the monthly rent from $32 to $1,600), and took up Phillips’ case before the Supreme Court.
Schancupp argued that no-dog violation nullified the whole lease. Phillips testified that her dog never caused any problems.
“No dog owner is going to say that [her pet is] a problem,” Schancupp responded.
White then argued that the balancing test Avallone had applied in ruling for Phillips — normally used only in evictions for nonpayment — was the fairest way to go.
The justices sided unanimously with Phillips on the substance of the case. But it sent the case back down, the justices instructed Avallone not to consider Mellow as an official therapy dog.
Avallone held another hearing back in New Haven in June to weigh the circumstances again. Phillips’s oldest niece, whose story Avallone had found so compelling, had now moved out. Matthew Harp said more tenants were starting to ask if they too could get pets.
Avallone ordered a compromise: The family must remove the dog from the property, but the family could stay.
Schancupp agreed with Avallone’s decision: “Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate, right on point and correct.” Phillips and White did not, because of how much the dog means to Phillips.
Phillips had two weeks to find a new home for Mellow. She feared she’d have to put him in a shelter. Eventually, she found an acquaintance, about a 15-minute drive from her apartment, who agreed to take Mellow in. “I’m not sure if he’s comfortable with me coming over,” she noted. “We haven’t discussed me being able to spend any time with him.”
Phillips has spent the last week looking through pictures on her iPhone and remembering the times they spent together.
“My dog knows tricks. He can give a high-five. I can go ‘bang’” — she pointed her finger like a gun — “and he’ll die for two seconds. But only for two seconds because then he’s like: ‘What treat do I get?’ I go on walks by the [Farmington Canal] bike trail, and I take a million pics. He sleeps in my bed, or if not in mine, with one of the kids. His favorite thing is car rides. He sticks his head out the window, and I sometimes let him pretend to drive,” she recounted. “He’s just a really chill dog. He’s older now, so he’s not as energetic as he used to be.”
“The best thing about him is that if I’m gone for like five minutes, he’s like, Where have you been? I missed you. I’m so happy you’re back,” she went on. Without him, “I’m unhappy. I can’t describe it as anything else. I depend on my being okay to run my household. The kids have enough going on that they don’t need me breaking down. I’m worried I won’t be able mentally be there for them.”