SIOUX CITY -- An Aurelia, Iowa, couple forced to give up their service dog because it's a pit bull mix sued the city of Aurelia Thursday, claiming that the municipality's ban on pit bulls violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
James Sak and Peggy Leifer also are seeking an injunction that would allow the dog to be returned to them immediately. They said the dog helps Sak, who has been disabled since having a stroke three years ago.
Their attorney, Sharon Malheiro, of Des Moines, has requested a hearing in U.S. District Court in Sioux City within five days. No hearing had been scheduled by late Thursday afternoon.
"We have no idea where this is going, but we're fighting the good fight. We're hoping to get him back soon," Leifer said.
Aurelia city officials did not immediately return Journal phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Sak and Leifer moved to Aurelia from Chicago in November so Leifer, an Aurelia native, could help care for her elderly mother.
Within days, 36 Aurelia residents had signed a petition asking the city to enforce its pit bull ordinance against Sak and Leifer.
At a special meeting on Dec. 14, the Aurelia City Council voted to enforce the ordinance and gave Sak and Leifer 24 hours to remove their dog. Since Dec. 15, Sak and Leifer have boarded the dog, named Snickers, at a veterinarian's kennel in nearby Cherokee, Iowa.
Leifer said the 5-year-old dog is a mixture of pit bull, black Lab and boxer and has pit bull-like appearance. The two bought him when he was 8 months old, and he has no history of aggressive behavior, Leifer said. Snickers was trained and certified as a service dog after Sak, 64, a retired Chicago Police Department officer, had a hemorrhagic stroke in November 2008 that left him with no feeling in his right side.
Leifer said her husband uses a wheelchair 95 percent of the time, and Snickers has been trained to alert her if Sak is having trouble. If Sak falls, Snickers will stand next to him, enabling Sak to roll over and get up by holding the dog's collar, she said.
Leifer said Snickers' presence allows her to leave their home and care for her mother. Since Snickers has been gone, Leifer has had to leave Sak home by himself. He has fallen once, an incident that required a 911 call for assistance.
In the motion for preliminary injunction, filed in U.S. District Court in Sioux City, Malheiro said that service dogs such as Snickers are recognized under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. Though the ADA does not have breed requirements for service dogs, it generally says that public entities must modify their "policies, practices or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability."
Malheiro also cited a U.S. Department of Justice interpretation of the ADA that local laws cannot restrict service dogs based on their breed.
The suit also asks that a judge declare that Aurelia's ordinance is in violation of the ADA and is unenforceable. In addition to seeking the injunction, Sak and Leifer are seeking an unspecified amount of damages from the city.
The case has gotten national attention. Media outlets from Chicago have interviewed Sak and Leifer, who said Thursday that the two have been contacted by numerous reporters and have gained the financial support of Animal Farm Foundation, a New York nonprofit organization that rescues and finds new homes for dogs labeled as pit bulls.