Sharon Malheiro Michele Warnock
After nearly one year of taxpayer-funded legal battles that escalated to the federal level, the City Council of Aurelia, Iowa, has opted to settle with Aurelia resident James Sak, 65, a disabled Vietnam Veteran and retired Chicago police officer, and his wife Peggy Leifer on the matter of Sak's service animal, a "pit bull" dog named Snickers. The council voted three to two in favor of the settlement.
Sak made national headlines in 2011 when the City of Aurelia said his service animal was not permitted in Sak's home because of the city's discriminatory dog laws banning "pit bull" dogs.
Under the terms of the settlement Sak and Leifer are permanently allowed to have Snickers in their home and in the community as Sak's service animal. Leifer will also be allowed to keep Snickers at her Aurelia home in the event that Sak precedes the dog in passing. The city will reimburse the couple for the legal expenses they incurred throughout this process. The settlement also requires that Sak and Leifer maintain an eight-foot fence in their backyard, and a similar fence must be constructed if the couple moves to another location in Aurelia. In 2011 the couple volunteered to erect an eight-foot fence in their backyard, which they completed earlier this spring ahead of the settlement.
"It feels like I got my heart back," said Sak, upon hearing that the settlement came through. "We're just glad it's finally over."
Davis Brown attorneys Sharon Malheiro and Michele Warnock represented Sak and Leifer in the case. In December 2011, they appeared before the United States District Court for an evidentiary hearing and successfully obtained a preliminary injunction allowing Snickers to remain at home while the case moved forward. A trial was set to begin in July 2013; however, because the council opted to settle outside of court, the trial is no longer needed.
"We are happy to have resolved the matter to the mutual satisfaction of all the parties," said Malheiro. "We hope that Snickers will serve as an example for other "pit bull" service dogs in the future." Leifer also noted the significance of the case. "This has been a landmark for others, that they may be able to keep their service dogs, too."
The Aurelia City Council's initial efforts to prohibit Sak from having his service dog appeared to violate 2010 guidance from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) on breed limitations for service dogs ("Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services"). In the opinion issued December 2011, the Honorable Judge Bennett stated, "Sak is sufficiently likely to prevail on a claim that a breed-specific ordinance that incidentally bars him from having a pit bull dog as a service animal violates Title II of the ADA and that substitution of a non-pit bull service animal is not a reasonable."
Animal Farm Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for "pit bull" dogs, provided support and information for the case. The foundation operates an Assistance Dog Training Program, where "pit bull" dogs from shelters and rescues are trained to do the same work traditionally reserved for pure bred, purpose bred dogs.
"This case was an extension of our mission and we were proud to ensure that Officer Sak's rights were not violated simply because his service animal is a 'pit bull' dog," said Stacey Coleman, Executive Director of Animal Farm Foundation. "It is unfortunate that Aurelia wasted taxpayer dollars to discriminate against this family in the first place, but we are pleased that the matter has finally been resolved."
In January 2012, Sak was diagnosed with cancer and completed treatment at Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City. Last week, Sak received results of a biopsy indicating that the treatments were successful. Sak and Leifer report that Snickers was "a tremendous source of strength, both physically and emotionally, for Jim throughout the process."
For additional information about the Animal Farm Foundation, visit www.animalfarmfoundation.org or contact Stacey Coleman at (845) 233-8823 or firstname.lastname@example.org.