A state Human Rights Commission investigator has found reasonable grounds to believe that a Norridgewock couple discriminated against a tenant whose daughter visited her rented home accompanied by a service dog last August and then retaliated against the tenant after she filed a human rights complaint.

Chief Investigator Victoria Ternig delivered her findings to the commission this week, saying that property owners Oakley and Donna Brann violated the Maine Human Rights Act in their treatment of former tenant Dawn Zammuto. Ternig also found that the Branns illegally retaliated against Zammuto by starting an eviction process after she filed a fair housing complaint with the commission.

The investigator’s report now goes to the five-member commission at a meeting scheduled for Jan. 26. The commission can adopt the investigator’s findings. In itself, the findings carry no penalty, but they may become grounds for future lawsuits and civil action.

The Maine Human Rights Act makes it unlawful for a property owner to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in housing for a person with a physical or mental disability. The act and the commission’s regulations also provide that it is unlawful for a property owner to refuse to permit the use of a service animal, according to the report.

The violations are alleged to have begun in August and continued into October when Zammuto moved to Farmington, according to the report. Zammuto faced forcible eviction from her home for allowing her daughter’s service dog to visit the house for five days in August in what the Branns claimed was a violation of the lease, which doesn’t allow pets. The Branns’ lawyer, John Martin of Skowhegan, said his clients’ position is that the language of the lease is clear — no pets allowed, no exceptions.

Zammuto, who cares for her daughter’s two sons, aged 4 and 2, said the dog is not a pet, but a service dog licensed in the state of Massachusetts and would not be living permanently in the home on Hatto Farm Road in Norridgewock.

Prior to moving into the home, Zammuto had camped in the area and visited with Donna Brann, according to the report.

“During the conversation Mrs. Brann did not say anything about restricting visitors,” the investigator wrote in her report. “Ms. Zammuto was open about the fact that her adult daughters would probably visit her around the holidays with their service dogs.”

Zammuto’s daughter, Jessica Botto, has conversion disorder, a condition in which psychological stress presents in physical ways and requires use of a service dog. Botto, of Lynn, Mass., can’t walk at times and requires the use of a wheelchair and a service dog to get around. Zammuto’s other daughter, Heather Conway of Malden, Mass., has Lupus and also uses a service dog.

Zammuto signed the lease in July and moved into the home with a large grassy plot and a big yard bordered by trees the following month. Botto arrived the first week of August to help her unpack. She brought her service dog, Gracie Goose, with her.

The dog is an 8-year-old Australian shepherd-Husky mix.

When Botto and her dog arrived Aug. 6 to help Zammuto unpack, Donna Brann came to the house to remind her that pets were not allowed and that she had not asked for permission to have the dog visit with Zammuto’s daughter. Zammuto explained again that the dog was not a pet.

“Mrs. Brann stated that (the Branns) did not care; they said no pets and they meant no pets,” the investigator wrote in her report. “Both women continued to repeat the same things during the exchange.”

Zammuto was served with a seven-day notice to vacate the premises on Aug. 12, according to the report. The reason for terminating Zammuto’s tenancy was because she violated the terms of the lease by having the service dog in the house, the report states.

Zammuto attempted to find a way to work the problem out, but Donna Brann allegedly said that she wanted her out. Zammuto was served with a forcible entry and detainer action on Aug. 25, but she did not begin to move out until Oct. 27. On Oct. 28, Zammuto said she was being followed to her new home by Oakley Brann seeking money owed to them. Zammuto considered Brann’s activity to be stalking and called police who later served him with a protection from harassment order.

Pine Tree Legal Assistance represented Zammuto.

Patricia Ender, staff attorney and fair housing coordinator at Pine Tree Legal, which is representing Zammuto, said if the commission agrees with the investigator’s report, the matter goes to conciliation, which is an attempt to settle the matter without having to go to court within 90 days. If there is no voluntary agreement for damages or to change policies regarding service animals, the commission can file a case against the Branns for the benefit of Zammuto, who also can bring her own claim against them.

“We are appreciative of the investigator’s report in terms of its findings about the service animal and also in terms of the finding of intimidation, where Mr. Brann came to her home and also followed her to her new home in Farmington,” Ender said. “The police in Skowhegan and the police in Farmington both gave him cease harassment notices and walked him off her property.”

She said that Martin, the Branns’ lawyer, has filed an objection to the commission report and said Tuesday that he will appear at the commission hearing.

Ender said she can also bring the federal Fair Housing Act into play in addition to violations of the Maine Human Rights Act.

“Monetary damages are typical,” Ender said of Maine law. “There could be out-of-pocket costs, but there’s also actual damages, which include emotional distress damages in housing. There can also be attorney fees and legal penalties under state law and punitive damages under both state and federal law.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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