Disability Law

Federal Court Service Animal Ruling Sought: Can a Companion Cat Fill the Paws of a Companion Dog?

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Diane Orenstein has been approved for Social Security disability benefits, and her doctor, psychologist and social worker say the 55-year-old brain-damaged woman would benefit from having a trained companion dog as a service animal.

But the board in charge of the Minneapolis condominium association in which she has been a longtime resident nonetheless questions whether she is disabled and says a companion cat, which is allowed for all residents under Calhoun-Isles Condominium Association rules, would fill the same service animal paws as the 15-pound King Cavalier King Charles spaniel she wants to get, the Star Tribune reports.

After more than a year of negotiation, Orenstein has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in Minneapolis seeking a declaratory judgment that the association and its property manager are violating the federal Fair Housing Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act by refusing to accommodate her disability.

In a July letter, the association’s lawyer told her counsel at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that “If Ms. Orenstein is indeed handicapped, as defined under applicable law, the association feels that permitting Ms. Orenstein to keep a cat reasonably accommodates her disability,” the newspaper reports.

In response, Michael Fargione, who serves as litigation director for the legal aid group, said that the type of service animal she needs isn’t for the association to decide and pointed out that cats and dogs have somewhat different characteristics.

“The medical professionals have not suggested a cat,” he wrote. “As a species, cats are certainly not noted for welcoming an owner home from work or enjoying a walk on a leash. The psychologist’s characterization of benefits from the ‘unconditional love offered by a dog’ is not typically applied to cats, which are more typically described as independent.”

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