Man faces eviction for owning a pitbull

The News Journal

Walter Ryan, a Kent County (Delaware) man who is facing possible eviction from his manufactured home because he refuses to get rid of his beloved dog, has found an attorney to help him fight any move to evict him.

But the Michigan-based company that owns High Point Park is showing no sign of budging -- although it has not followed through with a court action to evict Ryan.

Ryan, 56, lives in the Little Heaven park with his wife, Paula, and his sister Maryann. Both Walter Ryan and his sister are disabled. Paula Ryan helps care for them both.

Sun Communities Inc., which owns the park and rents the lots to homeowners, claims Dottie, one of the family's two dogs, violates the park's prohibition on "noisy, unruly or dangerous pets." Late last month the company told the Ryans to move.

A story in The News Journal on the Ryans' plight caught the attention of Neilson C. Himelein, an attorney with the Community Legal Aid Society in Wilmington. Himelein has agreed to take the case, Ryan said.

Himelein declined to comment Wednesday, saying he did not want "to litigate this in the newspaper."

However, the legal aid society's Web page lists Himelein as the organization's counsel for fair housing, suggesting Ryan could mount a legal defense based on his disability and that of his sister.

Federal law requires that landlords make "reasonable accommodation" for people with disabilities, and companion animals can be covered by that clause.

In addition, Delaware Humane Association official Mary Ann D'Amato said Thursday that she has been in touch with Himelein and that she has "offered to either mediate or speak on the issue of animal-assisted therapy involving both Walter and his sister."

The Ryans moved in seven years ago after the manager OK'd Dottie's presence, and they have lived there since. But on Jan. 31, the park's owner sent Ryan a "notice of rule violation" and followed up with a letter last month notifying him his lease was being terminated immediately.

The notice labeled Dottie a pit bull, which is one of several breeds of dogs prohibited by Ryan's lease.

Ryan countered with a statement from his veterinarian that 10-year-old Dottie is not vicious, and that it is impossible to determine how much pit bull blood the mixed-breed dog may have.

Sun Communities initially did not return calls from The News Journal. After the article appeared, the company said it would answer written questions submitted by fax.

In its faxed response, which came a week after the company received the questions, Sun Communities official Kevin Bennett said the company took the action after "a complaint was received from a neighbor of Mr. Ryan regarding an aggressive incident involving the dog."

Ryan said he suspects that refers to an incident in which Dottie barked at a neighbor's black Labrador retriever.

"A neighbor just passed by with the dog, and that was it," Ryan said.

At one point, the company's faxed statement says Dottie's breed is "irrelevant. ... The noted behavior is the important issue at hand and a court should decide if the dog poses a threat and decide its fate."

But in an answer to another question, Bennett wrote: "The reason we acted was the identification of the breed and the behavior it displayed."

Breed-specific measures such as the clause in the Sun lease have been rejected as unfair to owners and the animals by Delaware legislators and New Castle County Council. New Castle County Council defeated a proposal this month to label pit bulls as inherently dangerous and require owners to muzzle them.

State law leaves landlords free to put breed-specific bans in leases.

Ryan said he has heard nothing from the company since he received the notice that his lease was terminated.

"They don't call me. They haven't bothered me," Ryan said.

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