MHCO Columns

Overly Broad Restrictions on Assistance Animals Is Disability Discrimination

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Manufactured Housing Communities of Oregon


Continuing previous patterns, most of the 2023 cases alleged discrimination on the basis of disability; most of the disability discrimination claims alleged failure to make reasonable accommodations, specifically with regard to assistance animals. Explanation: The FHA requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations “necessary to afford a person with a disability the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” Waiving a no-pets rule so that a disabled rental applicant or tenant can keep an assistance animal is the classic example of a reasonable accommodation.

But allowing a tenant to keep an assistance animal is only one issue; it’s also important to understand the rules that apply after that. Landlords have the right to hold tenants responsible for ensuring that their assistance animals obey safety, sanitation, noise, property, and other community rules. However, they may not impose unreasonable restrictions.

Situation: A Philadelphia apartment community makes allowances to its longstanding no-pets policy for assistance animals, as long as tenants meet certain strict rules:

  • Assistance animals are allowed only in freight and not passenger elevators;
  • Assistance animals must wear a bark-suppressing collar at all times;
  • Tenants must pay deposits on their assistance animals and maintain $1 million in insurance naming the landlord as a beneficiary; and
  • Tenants guilty of more than three violations forfeit their rights to keep their assistance animal.

A tenant who owns an assistance animal sued the landlord, seeking punitive damages for disability discrimination.


You Make the Call: Did the tenant have a valid claim for refusing to make reasonable accommodations?

Answer: Yes

Ruling: The Pennsylvania federal court denied the landlord’s motion for summary judgment. To qualify for punitive damages, a plaintiff must show that a landlord’s denial of a reasonable accommodation “involves malicious intent or reckless or callous indifference” to the rights of others. The court concluded that the facts the tenant alleged were enough to allow a court to reach that conclusion and gave her the green light to try to prove those claims at trial [United States v. Dorchester Owners Ass’n, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12432].

Takeaway: HUD Guidelines expressly state that you can’t make individuals with disabilities pay extra fees or deposits as a condition for receiving a requested accommodation. That includes charges for an assistance animal necessary to assist a person with a disability. In other words, if it’s reasonable for the applicant or tenant to have the animal, you must allow it without any additional charges. However, what you can do is hold the tenant responsible for any actual damage the animal does to the apartment after the lease ends. You can also hold the tenant accountable if the animal violates building rules, such as by creating a danger or nuisance to others in the building.