Man Evicts Dog

Christopher Peak Photo 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.

Chapter One

Google Maps 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.”

Chapter Two

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.”

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posted by: 1644 on November 9, 2017  7:34pm

It is important to note here that the pre-termination notice gave the tenant an opportunity to rectify her lease violation without being evicted.  She chose to risk eviction rather than comely with the no-pets clause in the lease.  At the end of the day, with hundreds of thousands of public resources expended, she still needs to get rid of the dog.

posted by: robn on November 10, 2017  6:06am

A lease is a civil contract between two parties and when it is broken or expired, the CT legislature should respect the rights of one or more parties to terminate. The books need to be scrubbed of the many legal procedures that allow truculent tenants to prolong the process for months and months and to burn public resources with frivolous use of court time.

posted by: robn on November 10, 2017  6:13am

PS Although I sympathize with this dog owners affection with her animal, feeling better when your dog is around does not mean that the animal is a Service Animal. The latter is highly trained to do specific things for people with medical issues. I feel the same way about this as I do about people who attach a fake service animal vest to their dog to take them on planes; it’s an improper abuse of a legal framework set up to protect legitimately impaired people, many of whom are war veterans. Fake Service Animals delegitimize true ones.

posted by: 1644 on November 10, 2017  8:02am

Robn:  In this case, both Judge Avalone and the Supreme Court decided NOT to follow the law.  They acted as courts of “equity”, not law, to over-ride what the legislature had dictated to impose their own sense of “equity”, or fairness.  This is a long-standing English legal doctrine, but it obviously creates uncertainty and a certain amount of chaos as people’s opinion of what is equitable differ.  In some ways, this case reflects the argument over illegal aliens:  she knew she was breaking her lease, but since it was not enforced for years,  the landlord should not enforce it.  The court’s decision will encourage rule-breaking and non-paying tenants to drag out their court cases, increasing costs for landlords, who will either withdraw their units from the market or increase rents to cover the increased costs.

posted by: Realmom21 on November 13, 2017  11:32am

ok so here is how another landlord feels.  If you have documented issue, do the appropriate work to get your animal registered as an aid if not then oh well. Reality check when you have your own then you do as you see fit. You don’t own the premise thus you have to follow the OWNERS rules. The fact that the court entertained this is bizarre. I cant claim I am handicap without medical sign off well the same applies to the animal ..it is not a service animal unless doctors and vets sign off. beyond that you are in violation. Playing on the sympathy of others because your situation is sad isn’t right. Many people are lonely, angry, depressed,home bound etc and so much more and it is a known fact that animals help with all of those issues but if your LANDLORD says no pets than its no pets unless it is medical determined to be a service animal.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 13, 2017  3:09pm

posted by: Realmom21 on November 13, 2017 11:32am

it is not a service animal unless doctors and vets sign off. beyond that you are in violation.

Not true.

CERTIFICATION AND REGISTRATION
Does the ADA require that service animals be certified as service animals?

A: No. Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has
been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.

There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration
documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the
Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

posted by: robn on November 13, 2017  3:51pm

RM21,

There’s a cottage online industry of false “certificates” for service animals if one gets a doctors note. This is woefully abused by the public to get animals onto planes. The reality is that there is no official certification for service animals. A true service animal is trained to perform a a task or tasks in service to its owner. The law does not recognize an animal as a service animal if it is only there for emotional support and does not perform a task.

posted by: robn on November 13, 2017  5:25pm

3/5,

Almost…Unless the animal is obviously a seeing eye dog, under ADA…

one CAN ask;
Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

One CANNOT ask
about the nature of a disability
for proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal
for the animal to wear an identifying vest or tag
for the animal to demonstrate its task

The problem is that without some official, verifiable certification the law is poorly fashioned and encourages abuse.