A deaf couple, who neighbors say have a hearing dog that has annoyed other residents of the building with his barking, is being threatened with eviction from a second-story garden apartment in Columbia's Long Beach Village.
Bernice and Eugene Hoeper, who have lived in the Bentana apartments on Columbia's east side for three years, received a letter from the management to vacate their apartment by March 31.
The Hoepers have refused to move. They have also filed a discrimination complaint with the Howard County Human Rights Office, which is still investigating their complaint.
Meanwhile, the matter has moved into state district court for Howard County where Judge J. Thomas Nissel concluded hearings this week on eviction proceedings against the Hoepers and their hearing dog, Ranger. Nissel had not yet issued a decision.
Officials of Dreyfus Brothers, which manages the apartments, produced several witnesses during the proceedings who testified that Ranger barks whenever anyone enters or leves the Hoepers' three-story building.
One neighbor, Jack W. McWaters, said he has complained to the management 11 times about the barking. Anothe neighbor, Doris Schneider, testified that Ranger's behavior has not improved in the two years the Hoepers have owned him.
L. Eugene Towner, the Hoepers' attorney, moved that the case against the couple be dismissed because the apartment management failed to include a "statement of cause" in the termination notices sent to the couple. Towner said later that "for now" he is mounting a "purely technical" defense on the Hoepers behalf.
"I'm not talking about them being deaf or elderly or even that there's a dog involved at all," he said. "I'm just pointing out that conditions exist under which due process ought to be extended to the Hoepers, as to anyone else under the 5th and 14th Amendments."
Bernice Hoeper said Ranger, and English shepherd, nudges his owners to tell them when the telephone is ringing or when someone is at the door.
The hearing dog concept is "very new," according to Mrs. Hoeper who hopes to help establish a hearing dog program in Maryland.
She has a master's degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work and is director of Deaf Services for the Lutheran Mission Society in Baltimore. Her husband is retired.
Although pets are not allowed at the Bentana apartments, Mrs. Hoeper said neighbors have never complained to her about Ranger barking and, until late last year, the couple had received no adverse reaction from the apartment management.
Noting that the apartment complex now has its fourth resident manager in three years, Mrs. Hoeper said, "The first three managers seemed fine toward us and Ranger . . . I don't know exactly when this present one came. The others before her assured me that I didn't have to worry about having to get rid of Ranger."
Gary W. Scott, division manager for Dreyfus
er's situation as "a very difficult and emotional matter."
"We feel we have acted in good faith to resolve the matter," Scott said. "Other residents in that particular hallway are very upset, to the point they have gotten an attorney to resolve the matter."
Towner said he hopes the county human rights officel will succeed in working out a solution with management.
Orient C. Johnson, administrator of the human rights office, said he and his staff are forbidden by law to discuss particular cases or even to acknowledge that their office is involved.
In general though, Johnson said once a complaint is accepted by his office, an investigation is conducted, resulting in a written finding and a proposed conciliation agreement. If no agreement can be reached between the two parties concerned, the complaints may pursue the matter at the state or federal levels or file suit in the courts.
When conciliation attempts fail, human rights officials may turn the case over to the county law office if the alleged discrimination seems broad enough to have countywide ramification. Other complaints must be pursued privately in court, although complainants amy recoup their legal expenses if their cases are successful, Johnson said.
"I think Dreyfus pretty much feels trapped with the pressure being brought by complaining tenants through a lawyer," Towner said. "Probably the path of least resistance is to get rid of what seems to be the source of the problem."
Towner said he has contacted neighbors himself and the dog's trainer has written letters to tenants asking about the animal's behavior. Still, he said, no complaints have been received.
The Hoepers have stepped up their regular training program with Ranger and are also attending extra classes with the dog twice a week in Bethesda. They have installed a baby-minder light that flashes to alert them to any noise in the apartment, Towner said, "but "even having that, they are not aware of Ranger barking when he's not supposed to." The couple has an additional light on order.
"They can't find out what the problem is but they are doing everything they can to correct it," Towner said.
Mrs. Hoeper said the couple has twice been told their voices were too loud when they spoke to Ranger. "When we first got Ranger, the man upstairs came to tell me that I was speaking too loudly when I corrected Ranger.
"One other time, the manager, who is not here anymore, told me one tenant had complained about Gene talking too loudly to Ranger outside. He had said that Gene sounded like an animal. I can't say whether he does or not, or what he sounds like, as I have never heard his voice myself. And it was hard for Gene as he had always been told to use what voice he has, as are other deaf people. Anyway, that manager suggested he should not use his voice outside at all."