More Tenant Actions Going to the Dogs, Lawyers Say
Editors' Note: This article has been modified to reflect a Correction.
The first time Maddy Tarnofsky told a judge that her client's Golden Retriever was actually a legally protected, reasonable accommodation for a disability, she said, the judge "laughed in my face."
It was the mid-1990s, and her client was a plastic surgeon who specialized in treating children with deformities and severe burns. She kept the dog in her office to calm her patients, but the board of the Long Island co-op where she spent part of her time was trying to make her get rid of the dog. The doctor ended up surrendering the co-op.
She might get a different result today, Tarnofsky said. At any rate, "You wouldn't have a judge laugh now," Tarnofsky said.
Bradley Silverbush, a partner at Rosenberg & Estis who represents landlords, said that the balance has shifted so far in favor of tenants that they can often prevail on flimsy claims.
"Based upon my experience, 80 percent of the dog cases I have, people are using it as a defense," he said—that is, asserting that they need a dog for medical reasons only after the landlord tries to get rid of it, rather than having been diagnosed before. Though himself a dog owner and self-described animal lover, Silverbush represents landlords in pet cases more than any other attorney in the city.
Tarnofsky, a solo practitioner, is one of at least three attorneys in New York City who specialize in helping tenants and co-op shareholders keep animals that they say they need to cope with a disability. Tarnofsky, Karen Copeland, another solo practitioner, and Darryl Vernon of Vernon & Ginsburg, a small Manhattan firm, have all been handling emotional support animal cases for close to 20 years.
While other tenant attorneys sometimes handle such cases, none has focused on them as much as have Tarnofsky, Copeland and Vernon. Vernon belongs to the New York City Bar Association's animal law committee, of which Copeland is a past member. In Copeland's words, "just because we're animal people, we know each other."
They all agree that emotional support animal claims have taken off over the last decade.
"It appears that it's taking hold," Copeland said.