Service-dog flap at Aspen condo complex goes to court
A federal complaint accuses an Aspen condominium association and property-management firm of discrimination by not making accommodations for a seizure-prone tenant with a service dog.
Alvaro Arnal, the joint owner of a unit at Aspen View Condominiums on Midland Avenue, is suing the association and First Choice Properties & Management in the U.S. District Court of Denver. His suit accuses the defendants of discrimination, retaliation and interference with contract.
First Choice’s point person on the matter is on vacation and couldn’t be reached Monday. Ry Neiley, the attorney for the condo association, said he had not seen the suit, which he said was unexpected.
“For some months, the association was trying to work out an accommodation for this service dog,” Neiley said. “There was some difficulty with Mr. Arnal’s tenant coming up with the documentation.”
Cliff Mohwinkel, president of the board for Aspen View Condominiums, said the association “did more than its fair share” to accommodate the woman and her service dog.
“We walked the second and third and 10th mile, and we spent a lot of money trying to be equitable,” he said.
Mohwinkel also noted that another tenant currently resides at the complex with a service dog, and there have been no problems. The tenant recently moved in after providing the association board the proper paperwork, and the dog’s presence has been hassle-free, he said.
But Arnal’s suit, which comes after he leased his unit to a Florida woman in late 2013, portrays a dog dispute that sparked fines, a lien on his property and his tenant leaving well before her lease expired.
Arnal was OK with the tenant-canine arrangement, but before he leased his unit to the woman, he contacted First Choice to make sure the dog would be allowed, the suit says. Arnal’s suit says he sent multiple emails in October 2013 — one month before the tenant and her dog took residence — to First Choice. But the property manager and condo association were sluggish in getting back to him and on Nov. 13, 2013, Arnal emailed the board and First Property to inform them he was leasing the unit to the woman with the service dog.
“All of the research I have done on this issue shows that I cannot legally discriminate against a disabled person by denying her the rental because she has a service dog,” Arnal wrote to the board in an email, which is part of the complaint. “I am not willing to expose myself to a lawsuit because I illegally denied the rental to this tenant.”
Arnal and the tenant reached a one-year lease deal Nov. 22, 2013, and the condo association didn’t get back to him until Dec. 24, 2013, with a series of questions for Arnal to answer regarding the tenant and her qualifications to have the service dog, the suit says. The board’s letter said that Arnal hadn’t supplied enough information or official documentation about the woman’s disability, the suit says.
In the meantime, the board established a policy regarding service dogs, the suits says. And on Jan. 8, 2014, the board members visited Arnal and the new tenant, interviewing her about her disability for 45 minutes.
“She was asked whether the service dog was ‘officially trained,’” the suit says. “The tenant confirmed she was. She was asked to produce the dog’s service animal vest and certification card. She produced both.”
On Jan. 20, 2014, the board asked for more information, including evidence that the dog is helpful in preventing seizures and a doctor’s letter showing that the service dog is necessary. The board also noted that it would make an exception to its no-dogs policy for the new tenant as long as the canine wore a harness at all times when it was outside of the unit and in the complex’s common area. Other conditions included a prohibition on the dog urinating or defecating at the complex, along with a ban on barking or making noise “that would not be acceptable for a human to make,” the suit says. Failure to comply would result in a $50 fine on Arnal, the suit says.
Arnal referred the board to Canine Support Teams, which provided the dog to the tenant, to address its newest concerns. The board, in turn, began to fine Arnal $50 a day, starting Jan. 31, 2014, for allowing the dog to live there, the suit says.
The board also denied an Aspen doctor’s letter that said the tenant needed the dog, demanding elaboration, the suit says. A subsequent note from the physician, provided to the board in March 2014, said the tenant had a “well-documented seizure disorder” and she “benefits greatly” from the dog’s assistance because it “is able to sense an impending seizure, prepare (the tenant) for the seizure and potentially alert others of the situation,” the suit says.
Even so, the board continued to fine Arnal $50 a day for the dog’s presence, the suit says. At the end of March 2014, after living in the unit for less than five months, the disabled woman moved, the suit says.
And on June 5, the board slapped Arnal with a $1,450 fine and a $4,234 bill for its attorney’s fees that accumulated during the dog dispute. On July 9, the board placed a $5,684 lien on Arnal’s unit, says the suit, which was filed by Denver-based Law & Mediation Office of Phyllis A. Roestenberg.
Mohwinkel said anybody can move in the complex with a service dog, provided they play by the rules.
“They will be reviewed properly and will be taken care of in a matter that’s structured legally,” he said.
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