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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Breed Specific Legislation and the ADA

The government running the city of Aurelia in Iowa doesn’t like pit bulls. In December 2011, the city implemented a breed specific legislation, which prohibits new residents from owning pit bulls within city limits. That meant that new city residents who moved within city limits and own a pit bull or pit bull mix must either get rid of the dogs or move out of the city.

Jim Sak is a retired Chicago police officer and a Vietnam veteran. His service dog, “Snickers,” happens to be a pit bull mix. According to Jim, Snickers has been trained to do many things, including:

  • Assisting Jim when he walks short distances within his home;
  • Recognizing Jim’s tremors and lay down on the affected part of the body to stop the tremor;
  • Preventing Jim from falling down while walking; and
  • Assisting Jim to get back into his wheelchair.

Jim had moved to Aurelia with his wife and Snickers after the city enacted its breed specific legislation. Jim was unaware of the city’s ban on pit bull mix; and when he found out about the law, Jim was faced with two obvious choices: move again outside the city limits or have Snickers euthanized.

But there was a third option: sue the city.

So, with the help of the Animal Farm Foundation, Inc., Jim filed a federal complaint against the city, arguing that Snickers is exempt from the ban under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On December 28, 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett issued a memorandum opinion, which described the city’s breed-specific legislation as problematic in light of service dogs who happened to be pit bulls. Granting Jim a preliminary injunction, which permits Snickers to remain at Jim’s side until the merits of the case has been decided, Judge Bennett wrote:

This is one small, but vital step for [Jim] Sak, one giant leap for pit bull service dogs.

The merits of this case is scheduled to be heard in Federal Court sometime in July 2013.

Image by Steph Skardal – http://www.flickr.com/photos/just_steph/4388418371/ Creative Commons 2.0

Breed specific legislation has gained traction in many parts of the country. Usually, such legislation is enacted after a pit bull has attacked a child. Unfortunately, pit bulls have a terrible reputation — even those who oppose breed specific legislation agree with that. But tragic incidences involving pit bulls can usually be traced to irresponsible owners who trained their pit bulls to attack. And breed specific legislation not only advances the notion that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, it also hurts good, responsible owners who take care of their friendly and loving pit bulls.

Pit bulls are really wonderful dogs. If you are not convinced, spend some time reading BadRap.org to learn more about pit bulls and what the organization is doing to repair the pit bull’s tarnished reputation. Also, take some time to visit a shelter to meet some of these dogs. Or go to a local city park. I have met and seen many wonderful pit bulls and their owners in New York City and Philadelphia’s urban parks.

The Snickers case is an important case. It appears to be a case of first impression — I am not aware of any other case where a city’s ban on pit bull conflicted with the service animal provisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It is hopeful that this case will help show the public that breed specific legislation is not the answer. Judge Bennett’s opinion is not only a giant leap for pit bull service dogs, it will (hopefully) help improve the image of pit bulls.

[Update: On July 16, 2012, I received an email from a representative at The Animal Farm Foundation. The city of Aurelia voted to settle this case. As part of the settlement, Jim Sak is required to maintain an eight-foot fence in the backyard. Additionally, the city will reimburse Jim Sak for legal expenses that they incurred. The Animal Farm Foundation issued a press release. Congratulations to The Animal Farm Foundation, and good luck to Jim and Snickers!]

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    There are 5 comments. Add Yours.

    Chef David Edelstein

    Mr. Stoloff…

    The Sak/Snicker case, though more highly publicized, came second to the Allen Grider case in Denver, CO.

    Grider, also a Vietnam Vet, had his service dog confiscated for being a Pit Bull mix. The ADA and DOJ issued a federal mandate to the city of Denver to return the dog and amend their local ban of the breed to exclude Pit Bulls working as service dogs.
    See http://www.9news.com/news/article/168539/339/Class-action-lawsuit-filed-against-Denver-and-Aurora-over-pit-bull-ban-

    Our organization, Team Pit-a-Full, receives many correspondences every month asking about service dog pit bulls in Denver, disabled persons flying into Denver international airport, the safety of their dog, etc.

    What we convey is: “The city of Denver is highly erratic in the enforcement of their Pit Bull ban. For your safety (and the safety of your Pit Bull service dog), we suggested flying in/out of Colorado Springs.”

    The city of Denver was also given a court order in 2008 to amend the verbiage of their pit bull ban to exclude transport through the city. To date, the city has not revised their ordinance to reflect the change.

    Our rally on Jan 21, 2011 was specifically about the service dog issue in Denver- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N0oPM-hQ4U

    In efforts to improve the “bad rap” Pit Bulls and their owner have received from slanted and sensationalized media and back-room bargaining politicians, we developed the World Pit Bull Owner Registry – which neutralizes the myth that all Pit Bull owners are drug dealers, gang bangers and dog fighters.
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AnGzUEa-PyokdDZROUtsdENCLTdlZEM1WFZ3Q2pIR1E#gid=0

    We also have a very active calendar of Pit Bull Meet and Greet events including parades, community events, street fairs and public rallies.

    Get more info at http://www.TeamPitAFull.org

    Respectfully,

    Chef David Edelstein
    Founder, Team Pit-a-Full
    Denver, CO

      Matthew Stoloff, Esq. —

      Mr. Edelstein,

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing these links.

      Unfortunately, breed specific legislation is alive and well. Media sensationalism is a major part of the problem, and it is critical pit bull lovers be proactive — not only immediately following an unfortunate incident, but at all times. As with any breed, owning a pit bull and/or pit bull mix carries with it many great responsibilities. However, it also requires educating the public that pit bulls and pit bull mix are not the evil dogs that the media makes them out to be. Many people have grown fearful of these breeds, and it is important to get their trust back. That means training them well (e.g., having them pass canine temperament tests or training them to pass one or more certification tests); as well as taking the dogs to urban parks, dog parks, pet shows, festivals, etc. It also means asking curious people if they would like to pet your dog. Of course, dog owners (regardless of breed) must be absolutely certain that the dog is in a condition to be petted. I reviewed your organization’s mission, and it seems that you and your organization are on the right track.

      Thank you again.

    Nuria —

    BSL doesn’t work, and all it does is get innocent animals killed. Thanks to the media hype, many people believe these dogs are monsters. Of course, when a Lab or Chihuahua attacks a child it never becomes news, so we could say why not ban those dogs because they bite and attack too?

    Long Island Disability Attorney

    Good to see someone challenging breed specific laws. BSL plays on stereotypes of what the media thinks “pitbulls” are rather than reality. The reality is that most pitbulls are not aggressive towards humans. Jim Sak should be able to keep his service dog and is right to assert protection under the ADA.

      Matthew Stoloff, Esq. —

      Thank you for your comment. We need more lawyers across the country who are willing to take on such cases should this issue arise elsewhere. The court’s memorandum opinion should be cited liberally.

      Since the court granted the preliminary injunction, the likelihood that Jim will prevail on the merits — in my opinion — is better than 50%.