Army Vet Evicted in Dispute Over Service Dog

After some harrowing times as an Army medic in Iraq and Haiti, Adam R. Klyczek moved into an apartment in Niagara Falls in October 2014. He paid his rent on time and he was determined to be an ideal tenant for landlord Catherine Shannon.

But once the decorated veteran brought home his "service dog" -- a German shepherd puppy that psychologists said would help him cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder -- he claims Shannon forced him and his dog, Apollo, to move out.

Now, Klyczek has filed a housing discrimination lawsuit in federal court, seeking $400,000 in damages and up to $100,000 in civil fines and penalties. It is believed to be the first federal lawsuit filed in Western New York alleging that a veteran was discriminated against for owning a service animal.

Shannon's lawyer said the landlord never objected to the service dog. She only wanted to find out from her insurance company whether it would still cover her.

"Some companies will not give you homeowner's coverage if you have certain breeds of dogs," said the attorney, Rodney O. Personius.

But this is no ordinary tenant-landlord tussle.

Local landlords will be watching to see how the case plays out, said Robert Pascoe, president of the Landlords Association of Greater Niagara.

"I think landlords will be dealing with more of this issue in the future," he said, because of the increasing use of "service dogs" and "emotional support dogs."

When he filed the lawsuit last month, Klyczek was joined and supported by Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a not-for-profit agency that fights housing discrimination in the Buffalo area.

Under federal housing laws, the landlord was required to make "reasonable accommodations" for Klyczek once she learned that he was a veteran suffering with PTSD and that he had a "medically necessary service dog" to help him deal with his disability, said Scott W. Gehl, HOME's executive director.

But instead of making those accommodations, HOME alleges in the lawsuit that Shannon told Klyczek that dogs were not allowed in the apartment and forced him to move out.

"It is illegal to deny somebody housing because of a disability, and it is illegal to refuse to make reasonable accommodations that would make it possible for that person to remain in the housing unit," Gehl said, "A young man who risked his life and served his country should not be treated this way."

Shannon, a Buffalo resident, vehemently denies any kind of discrimination. Personius said his client has "total respect" for Klyczek's military service, and had no problem with the veteran's dog.

Klyczek, 28, who served as a combat medic in the Iraq War and also as a medic in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, said Shannon had told him he was an excellent tenant before he got Apollo.

Klyczek rented an apartment on Independence Avenue in Niagara Falls from Shannon after responding to an advertisement in October of last year, according to the lawsuit. Over the next five months, Klyczek said, he had a good tenant-landlord relationship with Shannon.

"She would tell me I kept the apartment very clean and that I was one of her best tenants," Klyczek said.

The relationship soured after April 20, when Klyczek got Apollo, a "service dog in training" that was prescribed for him by officials at the Buffalo Veterans Center, where he was receiving treatment for PTSD, the lawsuit alleges.

Shannon told Klyczek that, under the terms of his lease, he could not have a dog, according to the lawsuit. Klyczek asked Shannon to discuss the situation with officials of Western New York Heroes, a veterans organization in Buffalo that trains service dogs.

An official of Western New York Heroes told Shannon that, under federal law, she was required to make "reasonable accommodations" for Klyczek and allow him to keep the dog.

"I spoke to her twice, and she seemed to be adamant that she did not want the dog there, even after I explained the law to her," said Chris Kreiger, president and co-founder of Western New York Heroes. "She was upset about Adam getting the dog without telling her first."

In May, according to the lawsuit, Shannon told Klyczek that she was selling the home on Independence Avenue and that he would have to vacate his apartment so she could have contractors work on the house and prepare it for sale.

Shannon sent Klyczek a notice on May 21, saying he would have to vacate his apartment by June 30. According to court papers, he left at the end of June, and then contacted HOME with his housing discrimination complaint July 1. The lawsuit was filed Nov. 6 by Daniel J. Corbitt, an attorney from HOME, and attorneys Matthew A. Parham and Joseph A. Kelemen of the Western New York Law Center.

Responding to the lawsuit allegations, Personius said Shannon did discuss the case with a representative of Western New York Heroes and also with her insurance agent. He denied that Shannon was adamant about getting the dog removed from the apartment, and said Shannon's decision to sell the apartment house had nothing to do with Klyczek's service dog. He said Shannon is currently in the process of selling the property.

"Once she discussed with Western New York Heroes and her insurance agent, she had no concerns about Adam Klyczek having his service dog in the apartment," Personius said. "She never told him he could not have a service dog in the apartment. She did not force him to leave because of the service dog. The service dog was a non-issue after she had those discussions."

Personius showed a News reporter copies of text messages involving Shannon, Klyczek and Klyczek's father, relating to the apartment and Shannon's plans to sell the apartment building.

"There were never any communications in which she told him he could not have his service dog there, because that was not her position," Personius said.

Personius said his client never knew there was a legal dispute over the dog until the lawsuit was filed last month. He said he hopes to have discussions soon with attorneys for HOME and Klyczek.

Buffalo attorney Adam W. Perry, a family friend of Klyczek, put him in touch with HOME after he left the Niagara Falls apartment. Perry said he was outraged at the way Klyczek was treated.

In an interview, Klyczek told The News that he has suffered through some difficult times since enlisting in the Army in late 2006. He served as a medic in the 82nd Airborne Division and witnessed horrific incidents that still give him nightmares while serving in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

"I wanted excitement and I wanted to help people, so I volunteered to become a medic," Klyczek said. "It was a stark contrast to growing up in Clarence. I tended to quite a few injured soldiers and lost some brothers over there. There's a big conflict in my mind about my service in Iraq. The same things that give me absolute pride -- saving soldiers' lives -- are the same things that give me nightmares."

Klyczek said his worst memory of the war was seeing an 8-year-old Iraqi boy blow himself up with a bomb in a suicide attack against American soldiers.

"It was on Dec. 25, 2007," Klyczek said. "He killed my squad leader. There were three serious injuries in our unit, and I was knocked unconscious ... I had bandaged up that same little boy's hand the day before the bombing."

Klyczek said he also experienced some horrible situations when he served as a medic during a rescue mission after the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

"Haiti was just as bad as Iraq, but in a different way," he said. "The medics were working 24/7 ... I once helped a French doctor amputate a little boy's leg, the boy was trapped in rubble ... There were so many dead bodies in Haiti that they would pile them up out on the streets and guys would pick them up in the morning and put them in dump trucks."

Klyczek said he suffered from depression, alcoholism and other emotional problems when he returned to Western New York in 2011.

"I just felt like I couldn't reconnect with old friends. I felt isolated, kept to myself a lot," he said. "I once attempted suicide ... I used alcohol to cope with flashback nightmares and loneliness."

Klyczek said he was convicted of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated after an incident in May 2013 and wound up in Niagara County's Veterans Court. Having a puppy assigned to him as a service dog was one of the best things that has happened to him since leaving the Army, he said.

"I never had a pet as a kid and never knew a dog would help me," he said. "Apollo was the best thing for me. He was the one connection I made. He was there by my side all the time. He helped me with my anxiety and my nightmares. I got unconditional love from that dog."

When Klyczek left the Niagara Falls apartment, Apollo was taken away from him, Klyczek said, at the direction of a Veterans Court official because Klyczek was "couch-surfing" at the homes of friends and unable to properly care for the dog.

He said he's been "basically homeless" since July, moving from one residence to another. He is currently staying and receiving counseling in a facility for homeless vets in Saranac Lake. He hopes to put his life together, get a college degree and find a job where he can help the poor.

"I miss Apollo," Klyczek said. "He was there by my side all the time ... I got unconditional love from that dog."

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