Monday 21 January 2019

The saga of the senior counsel, the hotel owner and the miniature Pomeranian

The saga of the miniature Pom, and the owners of Marlfield House ended up before a tribunal last week, writes Liam Collins

DISPUTE: Barbara Seligman with her 14-year-old miniature Pomeranian Topaz, and the doggy buggy in which Topaz travels. Photo: Frank McGrath
DISPUTE: Barbara Seligman with her 14-year-old miniature Pomeranian Topaz, and the doggy buggy in which Topaz travels. Photo: Frank McGrath
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Eighty-year-old champion Bridge-playing barrister Barbara Seligman was wheeling her 14-year-old miniature toy Pomeranian dog Topaz in a pram towards the apartment she rents in Gorey from Mary Bowe - owner of Marlfield House - when a neighbour stopped her to admire 'the baby'.

"It's a dog... you can't keep a dog in here," was the neighbour's startled reaction on seeing the 5lb Topaz nestling in a blanket.

Ms Seligman, whose late husband Don was also a well-known SC, thought nothing more about it until she received a letter from local auctioneer Frank Pierce, acting as the agent for Mary Bowe and her daughter Margaret, telling her either Topaz goes or she does.

Stubborn Ms Seligman wasn't parting with Topaz and toughed it out until she was later served with an eviction order.

That's how the saga of the senior counsel, the miniature Pom, and the owners of Marlfield House ended up before a three-person Residential Tenancies Board tribunal in Wexford last week.

The Bowes love dogs and don't want to see Barbara or Topaz evicted. They weren't aware of the 'no pets' clause, although they own eight apartments in the Priory Court complex in Gorey, Co Wexford. They were, said Margaret Bowe, caught in a catch-22 situation. The management company of the complex, set in an old convent, bans all pets, even goldfish, the hearing was told.

The ban is enforced in the original deeds, the lease and the house rules.

But, as the hearing went on, a possible loophole emerged.

"I have this small pram for the dog to go down to Gorey - I couldn't bring her on a lead because anybody could stand on her, and that would be the end of Topaz," Ms Seligman explained. "But it has a double purpose in that it helps me to walk as well," said the feisty widow who suffers from double cancer, osteoporosis and an eye-degenerating disease that requires injections into her eyeballs every month.

Ms Seligman told the tribunal, composed of Brian Murray, Rosemary Healy-Rae and Jack Nicholas, how she and her husband had lived in apartments on Arran Quay in Dublin - and after his death she had lived in Clonfadda Wood in Blackrock, Co Dublin - and "nobody has ever complained" about their dogs.

In her last apartment she was paying rent of €2,100 a month, but when the Rent Restrictions were introduced, her landlady said she wanted the apartment back for her mother-in-law and she had to leave.

She saw an advertisement for the apartment in Priory Court and met Frank Pierce, who represents DNG Pierce Properties in Gorey.

She claimed that the day she called to his office it was "in chaos" with "three children taking the place apart" and although she signed the lease, she didn't read it.

"I asked Mr Pierce: 'Is there anything onerous I should know about in this?' and he said 'no', it was a standard lease. I didn't say anything about the dog, it never occurred to me."

She said she asked for a copy of the lease and was told it would be put in the post. Her €1,700 deposit and first month's rent was taken from her bank account and she thought everything was in order. "A short time after that I got a telephone call from Mary Bowe. Over the years I have known her as a pleasant acquaintance. She said, 'as soon as you come down, come for lunch in Marlfield'," she said.

In the weeks that followed, she moved her "bits and pieces" into the apartment and everything was fine until the end of October.

"I was in and out and the dog was always with me. Nobody said a word." But after the incident with the pram, "I got a phone call from Mr Pierce: 'You can't keep a dog here, get rid of the dog... it says in your lease you can't have a dog, it's against the house rules'."

She told him she had never been given her copy of the lease or a copy of the House Rules. That night at about midnight somebody put the lease and House Rules into her letter box, she claimed, although Mr Pierce said he dropped them in on his way home from work in the early evening.

"If I had seen it I would have asked the landlady to see if it could be waived, or if there was any way around it."

After getting a letter on November 10, 2017 giving her 21 days to "remedy the breach", she rang Mary Bowe, telling her: "I am going to be evicted.

"She told me, 'we love dogs, we have always had dogs, we even encourage visitors to bring dogs (to Marlfield House). Don't worry about this, he is not speaking for me. If necessary I will get rid of the agent rather than the dog.'"

A few days later Barbara Seligman sent three bunches of red roses she bought in Lidl to Mrs Bowe.

In the weeks that followed Mrs Seligman also got involved in an acrimonious dispute with the management company of Priory Court over her parking. She told the hearing that rubbish and garden refuse was dumped on her car, notes were stuck to her window with glue telling her she was parking in the wrong space and at one stage she parked across the entrance in protest.

She claimed that when she was walking through Gorey, Mr Pierce "roared at me, as if I was a fishwife, 'you get rid of that dog'," something Mr Pierce strenuously denied.

"This was all because of the dog. They all have husbands and wives and companions, anybody they want, I need a dog, I can't have a dog. If it was causing one iota of trouble I would deal with it," she said, adding that the only time Topaz was alone was when she was playing Bridge.

Her barrister, Karl Monahan BL, read a letter from Mrs Seligman's oncologist, Dr Janice Walsh, saying "small comfort dogs help to keep her stress levels down".

"Nobody can live totally on their own. I am old, I don't mix well, I play Bridge a couple of nights a week, I need Topaz," she said. "The behaviour of the management company has been abominable, if you have a dog and don't distress anybody, what's the issue? It is outrageous."

In evidence, Frank Pierce said he was engaged by the landlords as their agent to let No.42 Priory Court. He put an ad on with various boxes ticked, like fridge, dishwasher, washing machine - but the pets box did not have a tick, indicating that pets were not allowed. He said he handed Mrs Seligman the lease and she signed three copies.

He said it is a standard DNG lease, but the clause banning pets was inserted by him because it was in the House Rules of the complex.

Many of the residents are retired elderly people who have moved down from Dublin, he said. "A lot of others had to make arrangements for their pets in order to move into Priory Court... the problem is if she is allowed a pet..." adding, "Barbara is a barrister, she is well used to reading documents before signing them. She says she didn't know about the pet condition. I think she did. I am sure she knew."

Margaret Bowe, acting for her mother Mary, said she hadn't seen any other pets, although Mrs Seligman produced photographs of what she said were "well-fed cats" who also lived in the complex. It was argued by the other side that these could be strays.

Under questioning from the barrister, Mr Monahan, it emerged that the ban on pets could be waived if written permission is given by the owner, something that was neither requested nor given.

"I am representing my mother," said Margaret Bowe, "we see it as about the management company, not about the landlord. We are not in a position to make an agreement with Mrs Seligman".

She said they were caught between the management company and its House Rules and the goodwill they had for Mrs Seligman, but never had any issue with the management company before.

The case lasted almost two hours and the tribunal will report to the Residential Tenancies Board, which will make a finding having considered the issues.

Sunday Independent

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