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Letdown In Denver
Posted on 12/10/2013 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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Letdown In Denver
Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel

The city of Denver, Colorado, has one of the most notorious and longstanding “pit bull” bans in the country. Thousands of dogs have been sadly seized and killed needlessly simply because of their appearance.

Legal challenges to the law have thus far been unsuccessful, but there seemed to be hope with the most recent suit. Three owners of service dogs that happen to be “pit bulls” filed suit a few years ago because the cities of Denver and Aurora refused to amend their ordinances to provide exceptions for service animals. The three individuals filed suit seeking an injunction against the cities to force amendments.

The Department of Justice made a ruling a few years ago that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the DOJ, “does not believe that it is either appropriate or consistent with the ADA to defer to local laws that prohibit certain breeds of dogs based on local concerns that these breeds may have a history of unprovoked aggression or attacks.” Denver refused to make clear exemptions for service dogs that they identified as “pit bulls”, but created a written policy that modified enforcement of the ban, and allegedly will not impound “pit bulls” identified as service dogs. No clarification as to how a service dog is properly identified has been made. Aurora makes exceptions for “pit bull” service dogs, but only grants license to them after several restrictions are met.

One of the plaintiffs is a well-known UKC competitor and judge: Valerie Piltz. Amongst the breeds that Val owns are some superstar American Pit Bull Terriers, a few of which have served or are currently serving as service dogs for her. Two of her service dogs are also UKC’s highest multi-event titled dogs. Val got drawn into this battle when she went to help show her sister the ropes at a dog show in Aurora and also help her start up her dog business. Val knew of the ban in Denver already and that Aurora had issues as well, so her sister contacted the head of animal control in order to obtain a permit to bring Val’s service dogs into the city.

According to Val, her sister was informed that only if Val was blind or deaf would the dogs be allowed, which is in flagrant disregard of the ADA. The city of Aurora issued a permit but gave her many verbal restrictions, including telling her that she could not stay in the city, could not stop and get gas, and the dogs had to be muzzled at all times. Val never drove through the city of Denver, nor did she shop there. When she drove in the area, she kept her dogs on the floor of the car and covered them with a blanket.

Val and her sister contacted the Animal Law Center, a Denver-based firm, who helped ensure that Val’s dogs would not be taken from her, and who later added Val as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the two cities regarding their restrictions affecting service dogs.

Val has put a lot into this case, both emotionally and financially, and has suffered a great deal of stress that has manifested physically. She has really lost her faith in the justice system as a whole, and has gained a serious distrust of people of authority as a result of what she has gone through.

I have also met one of the other plaintiffs, Glenn Belcher, who also owns a UKC American Pit Bull Terrier. Glenn moved to Denver from Idaho with his APBT service dog and had no knowledge of the ban. He’s an Iraq veteran who suffers from PTSD, and it seems unimaginable that anyone would want to take his service dog from him, yet it was attempted.

After a few years going back and forth on various procedural motions, the court has ruled to dismiss the majority of the case. Essentially, most of the counts were dismissed due to the legal standing of the three plaintiffs. Standing is one of those sticky gray areas of the law that I have always had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around even as a lawyer. Legal standing, simplified, is the legal right of a person or group to challenge in a judicial forum the conduct of another, especially with respect to governmental conduct.

Basically, in order to file suit, one must be able to establish standing through three elements:
1. That the individual has suffered an “injury in fact”, which must be (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.
2. The injury is traceable to the alleged action of the defendant.
3. It’s likely, not just speculative, that a favorable decision will remedy the injury.

What kills standing in many cases, and the part I have the most trouble with, is the first element. The difference between imminent verses conjectural or hypothetical is a very thin line, in my opinion, and a very hard one to make oftentimes. Standing does not mean you have proven your case and you win. It merely means you have the right to go forward with your case and proceed with your lawsuit.

In the case of all three plaintiffs and Denver, the court noted that there was no standing because the written policy Denver had modified for enforcement was enough to prevent “injury”; i.e., seizure of the dogs that would interfere with their necessary duties. The court’s reasoning is flawed; the written policy is no guarantee. It does not amend the law itself and could be changed at any time. The court also found there was no prior injury, even before this written modification was made, despite the fact that one plaintiff moved from the city to keep his service dog, and the other two restricted their travels to Denver because of potential seizure and loss of use of their service animals.

As to the city of Aurora, the court found that because it allowed “pit bull” service dogs, no injuries were suffered by the plaintiffs. This despite the fact that they must go through extra steps and restrictions than if they had say Labrador Retrievers as service dogs. The one plaintiff, Grider, who lives in Aurora actually had his dog seized in 2009 and subsequently placed her with a friend for five months, thus losing the use of the service dog, and suffered from it. The court ruled he has standing to go forward with his case for his past injury only. All other cases were dismissed.

I have learned that the plaintiffs plan to appeal, and I applaud their decision. Bottom line, the DOJ ruling was quite clear, and federal law always trumps state and local law. In Aurelia, Iowa, Jim Sak was another “pit bull” service dog owner, and he fought against their ban. In fact he fought all the way to federal court and won, and the city settled with him to allow his dog.

Any undue restrictions or burdens placed on individuals with service dogs cause unnecessary suffering and sometimes expense and hardship. There is always hope on appeal, and should the plaintiffs triumph in this case, it could be the first real step in chipping away at the terrible Denver ban.

In the meantime, Val informed me that she is even more terrified to take any “pit bull” type dogs to the Denver area than she was before this experience. She would never take any of her APBT’s that are not service dogs, but will continue to show and judge in Colorado with her service dogs, but still contacts the Animal Law Center each time she travels. She advises the following to fellow “pit bull” dog owners thinking about travelling to the area, “You are safer in China. Do not go to Denver. Do not go to Aurora. Do not spend money there. Do not trust the state to protect your rights.” As Denver is a city that has seized and euthanized nearly 2,000 “pit bulls”, I think this is good advice.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of BLOODLINES Dog Event News, an official publication of the United Kennel Club.