Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Homeowners association wants NJ family to get rid of daughter's service dog

From The Star-Ledger in N.J.:

HOWELL, N.J. — When Laura Beckenstein’s seizures became more frequent and serious four years ago, her parents sought permission from their homeowners association in Howell to get their daughter a service dog in 2007.

Two years after granting Beckenstein permission to get Ziggy, the association said she couldn’t keep the dog because the family couldn’t prove it was a service dog and not a pet prohibited under the association’s by-laws.

Today, the state Division on Civil Rights said Beckenstein, 25, has a case against the Moors Landing Homeowners Association, which it said may have violated her rights as a disabled person because it wanted more from her than state law requires.

"While a person requesting a reasonable accommodation may be required to document his or her disability and any need for an accommodation, as (Beckenstein) did in this case, the nature of (the association’s) requests for more information went beyond what is required (and) can be viewed as a denial of the accommodation," Chinh Q. Le, the division director, wrote in his finding.

The association wanted proof Ziggy, the black lab/border collie mix the family adopted from the North Shore Animal League, was certified as a service dog.

Beckenstein told the association it was through their bonding — not training — that Ziggy learned to bark and stay by her side to alert others during her seizures.

Le said the state’s Law Against Discrimination does not require a service dog be trained by a recognized training agency or school. The association, he said, placed a burden on Beckenstein that went beyond the law’s requirements.

James Paone II, an attorney for the homeowners association, said Beckenstein was one of about a dozen residents in the development believed to be in violation of the no outdoor pet rules and regulations. The association filed a complaint in Superior Court in Monmouth County asking a judge to force the named homeowners to give up those pets. That larger case is in still pending and no animals have been taken from their owners, Paone said.

"The community has issues with respect to the pets," he said. "So there have been notices sent out, discussions held."

Paone said he could not comment on the decision because he had not read Le’s finding.

"We want to see what the decision says,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll consult with our client, examine our options and move forward from there."

With this finding, the state can take the case to trial before an administrative law judge if both sides can’t settle the dispute amicably.

Beckenstein, who had a seizure disorder since 1996 and was ultimately diagnosed as suffering from epilepsy, was seizure-free for about seven years before she started having frequent grand mal seizures starting in May 2006, according to the decision. In June 2007, her father, Marc Beckenstein, wrote to then-homeowners association board president Gary Boitman asking for a waiver of the association’s by-laws that prohibit outdoor pets for townhouse residents in the development.

Marc Beckenstein also sent along a note from his daughter’s neurologist saying she has a seizure disorder and it was "okay" for her to have a service dog. Boitman gave them verbal permission and days later they adopted Ziggy.