The owners and managers of a Midwest community recently agreed to pay $35,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department, alleging that they violated fair housing law by placing undue conditions on a resident’s request to live with her assistance animal and then refused to renew her lease.
The Backstory: The case is about a resident who moved into an 800-unit community, which allowed pets and assistance animals, but had a “no dangerous breeds” policy that prohibited pit bulls. Before moving in, the resident allegedly had been in treatment for mental health disabilities that stemmed, at least in part, from witnessing the traumatic deaths of her boyfriend and mother. A family member gave her a young pit bull, which her treating psychologist said helped alleviate the symptoms of her disability and was a “major and required part of her treatment program.”
She apparently didn’t mention the dog when she moved into the community later that year. When the community discovered the pit bull, the resident requested a reasonable accommodation so she could keep it as an emotional support animal. Allegedly, the community denied the request and told her to remove it.
What followed were communications involving the resident, community representatives, and their lawyers, and ultimately, a series of court proceedings. During the process, the resident produced documentation from her treating psychiatrist that the specific animal was necessary for her to be able to live there and essential to her recovery from the severe trauma she suffered. In an interview before a court reporter, the psychiatrist said much the same thing.
It was about half-way through the one-year lease term when the parties came to terms. In lieu of granting her requested accommodation, the community allegedly gave her two options: either immediately terminate her lease and get some rent back or keep the dog through the end of the lease, but with conditions. Allegedly, the conditions included obtaining an insurance policy to cover the dog, requiring the dog to wear an emotional support vest whenever he left her unit, and repaying the community for any harm caused by the dog.
According to the resident, she picked the second option, but a few months later, she received notice that her lease would not be renewed. Renewed negotiations were unsuccessful, and she moved out.
After the resident filed a HUD complaint, the Justice Department sued the community for discrimination and retaliation against the resident on the basis of her disability.
The community denied the allegations, but the parties reached a settlement to resolve the matter. Without admitting liability, the community agreed to pay $35,000 to the former resident and adopt policies, including a reasonable accommodation policy that specifically addressed requests for assistance animals. Under the new policy, assistance animals are not subject to breed restrictions or required to wear vests or other insignia that identify them as assistance animals; residents are not required to pay any fees or obtain insurance as a condition of keeping assistance animals.
1. Assistance Animals Are NOT Pets: Some communities ban pets altogether, while others place limits on the number, type, size, or weight of pets and impose conditions such as extra fees, security deposits, or additional rent charges. Whatever your pet policy, you must consider a request to make an exception to allow an assistance animal when needed by an individual with a disability to fully use and enjoy the community. That includes a request to keep a pit bull as an assistance animal—despite any policies banning so-called “dangerous breeds”—unless there’s evidence that the particular animal poses a direct threat to the safety or property of others.
2. Requests for Assistance Animal Can Come Anytime: Don’t get thrown off because the resident makes a reasonable accommodation only after you discover she’s been keeping an animal in violation of your pet policy. Under fair housing law, reasonable accommodation requests may be made at anytime before or during the tenancy. The timing may be off, but it’s risky to deny the request—or make the resident jump through hoops—to overcome suspicions that she’s trying to get around your rules by falsely claiming a pet is an assistance animal. Instead, follow your standard policies for handling reasonable accommodation requests, including verification of the disability and need for the assistance animal if either or both are not known or readily apparent.
3. Don’t Impose Extra Conditions to Allow Assistance Animals: Don’t require residents with disabilities to pay pet fees or get extra insurance coverage as a condition of allowing them to keep assistance animals. Conditions and restrictions that communities apply to pets may not be applied to assistance animals, according to HUD, though you do have recourse against residents for damages caused by assistance animals. HUD says you may require a resident to cover the cost of repairs for damage the animal causes to his unit or the common areas, reasonable wear and tear excepted, if it’s your policy to assess residents for any damage that they cause to the premises. Allowing for reasonable wear and tear, you may assess the costs against the standard security deposit charged to all residents, regardless of disability.