Friday, January 28, 2011

Colorado town continues its fight against pit bulls as service dogs

From The Aurora Sentinel:

AURORA, Colo. -- City officials are doggedly trying to uphold their ban on owning pit bulls even as looming federal rules mandate that cities allow restricted breeds as service dogs for people with disabilities come March 15.

Aurora City Council members decided at a meeting earlier this month that the new U.S. Department of Justice rules are too lenient and they would not back down from their ban on pit bulls. However, city attorneys say their decision could pave the way for lawsuits against them.

The issue has become a double-edged sword that has prompted council members to plan a discussion around the restricted breed ban in its entirety at their two-day winter workshop beginning Feb. 4.

Attorneys for the city said at a Jan. 13 meeting that city officials would be restricted in their ability to gauge whether a pit bull is actually a service dog under federal rules. However, they cautioned that the city could open itself up to a federal lawsuit if it does not follow the federal guidelines.

“We are extremely limited in questioning someone about the disability that gives rise to the need for the animal,” said City Attorney Charlie Richardson at the meeting.

Cities can’t require proof of a person’s disability like states do when they issue handicap-parking placards because the state is governed by state law and Department of Transportation regulations.

Municipalities such as Aurora are prohibited from asking for proof that a person is disabled or proof that the disabled person needs a service dog because they are governed under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under the federal law, a public entity cannot make unnecessary inquiries into the existence of a disability.

The new Department of Justice rules that will go into effect in March affirm that statement.

The new rules only allow governments to ask if the animal — whether it’s a pit bull or another type of dog — is a service animal and what tasks the service animal performs.

The new rules also define “service animal” as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”

But that definition is too broad, city attorneys say.

“The way the new regulations are drafted opens the door in a huge way for people to take advantage,” said another city attorney, Nancy Cornish-Rodgers, at the Jan. 13 meeting.

The new mandate also states that compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act overrides any city’s ban on a specific breed of animal and cities must accommodate any person with a service animal, regardless whether the animal is a restricted breed that is banned by the city.

Rodgers says the Department of Justice is committed to enforcing the new regulations, which it could do through a direct action against the city.

The Department of Justice can file lawsuits in federal court to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act and it can also obtain civil penalties of up to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for any subsequent violation.

However, Rodgers says that in a more likely situation, the regulations could be used as leverage in a lawsuit against the city by a disabled person with a pit bull service dog.

That means the ongoing lawsuit that Aurora resident Allen Grider filed against the city could gain some strength after March.

Grider, who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, filed a lawsuit against the city last year because he says the city can’t mandate how his pit bull service dog is maintained.

Currently, it’s against city ordinance to own pit bulls in Aurora, although owners, who had the dogs prior to 2005 when the ordinance was passed, can keep their animals as long as they pay an annual license fee and comply with licensing requirements.

Aurora’s decision to go against the new regulations bodes poorly for disabled people who own pit bulls, said Candice Adler, training coordinator for the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center’s Rocky Mountain ADA Center.

“There are people who live outside of (Aurora) who might use a pit bull as a service animal,” she said. “If they travel through there, what is going to happen with them and their service animal? Are they going to be allowed to enter pubic buildings or is their dog going to get seized?”

But Adler said she hasn’t heard of a groundswell of disabled people who have service dogs that are pit bulls in the Denver metro area.

“It’s a little too early to tell what’s going to happen,” Adler said.

Aurora joins four other cities in Colorado that have bans on pit bulls: Denver, Castle Rock, Commerce City and Fort Lupton.

Denver city officials are also maintaining their pit bull ban in the face of the new federal regulations.

Attorneys for Castle Rock and Commerce City are in the process of reviewing the pit bull ban ordinance for any potential changes, and will brief council at some point in the near future, spokespeople say.

Pit bull owners say the dogs should be allowed as pets and service animals in all cities throughout Colorado.

At a Jan. 21 rally against Denver’s pit bull ban, Lakewood resident Mary Schutte said her children were raised with pit bulls as pets.

“(The pit bulls) have never harmed a soul, they love all humans and all other dogs,” said Schutte, who works at Banfield Veterinary Hospital in Lakewood. Schutte said she would move away from Lakewood if the city adopted an ordinance to ban pit bulls and she’d never consider moving to Aurora or Denver because of their breed bans.

“They have been nothing but wonderful,” she said of her dogs. “They don’t have a mean bone in their body.”