HUD Charges Owner with Disability Discrimination
The case shows how mishandling situations involving assistance animals could cost you.
HUD recently charged an owner with violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing a resident’s request for a disability-related reasonable accommodation to keep an assistance animal and by subjecting the resident to retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation.
HUD claims that the owner refused a tenant’s request to allow her disabled child to have an assistance animal in her unit. According to the charge, the child has been medically diagnosed with mental health conditions. And the child’s treatment professional supports the use of an assistance animal to help the symptoms of the disability.
Although the resident provided medical documentation supporting the minor’s need for an assistance animal, the owner continued to deny the reasonable accommodation because the site doesn’t allow pets. The resident made her first reasonable accommodation request verbally and provided a letter from the child’s doctor. The owner denied this request, alleging that a resident in the unit directly above her unit had an allergy to dogs. A few months later, the resident made a second written reasonable accommodation request that stated that she and her child had a legal right to keep an assistance animal under applicable laws.
Owner’s response. The owner responded by text denying the request and wrote, “I recognize you have a right to the dog, but I also recognize my right as your landlord to refuse having one in my building. I’m so sorry but I can’t permit a dog on the property and I can’t make an exception for one resident. I understand your need to get one, but if you are set in stone about it, you may have to look for a new place. Sincerest apologies.”
Shortly after her latest request for a reasonable accommodation, the resident received a notice to vacate her unit and had to move to another, more expensive, apartment within her daughter’s school district.
Pet Rules and Assistance Animals
You generally can't apply a no-pets policy to residents with assistance animals because assistance animals aren't considered “pets” under fair housing law. While the owner texted that he couldn’t make an “exception for one resident,” fair housing law says that exceptions must be made to allow an individual with a disability to enjoy and use housing. According to HUD, discrimination includes a failure to make a change, exception, or adjustment to a policy, practice, procedure, or service when such accommodation may be necessary for an individual with a disability to enjoy and use housing.
What’s reasonable? It’s important to note, however, that fair housing law doesn’t require owners to make unreasonable accommodations for residents’ disabilities. So, if a resident’s assistance animal causes undue financial and administrative hardship, that accommodation is unreasonable, and you don’t have to allow the resident to keep the assistance animal. In the case here, there are no indications that the accommodation to allow the child to have a dog would be unreasonable.
Suppose a resident’s assistance animal barks all night, causing several residents either to insist that you relocate the resident or to threaten to move out of your site. An owner then might be able to require the disabled resident to get rid of his assistance animal. But what’s reasonable and what isn’t will depend on the particular circumstances. Mishandling such situations could cost you, so you should consult your attorney when dealing with troublesome assistance animals.
A U.S. administrative law judge will hear HUD’s charge unless any party to the charge elects to have the case heard in federal district court. An administrative law judge who finds, after a hearing, that discrimination has occurred may award damages to the individuals for their losses as a result of the discrimination.
The judge may also order injunctive relief and other equitable relief to deter further discrimination and payment of attorney fees. Additionally, the judge may impose civil penalties to vindicate the public interest. If the federal court hears the case, the judge may also award punitive damages to the mother and child.