PHA Didn't Retaliate Against Resident by Requiring Recertification
In a recent case, a resident asked the court for a preliminary injunction—that is, an order before the trial—to halt a PHA’s eviction case against him. The case involves a request for reasonable accommodations for an emotional support animal and a PHA’s routine eligibility recertification process that all residents must complete annually.
The resident’s lease agreement stated that he agreed to the annual recertification process. The resident agreed to provide accurate information and certifications regarding family composition and income to make appropriate determinations about rent, eligibility, and dwelling size.
But the resident was now unwilling to submit to the recertification process because he felt that it was in his “best interest not to engage in further contractual agreements” with the PHA to protect his “due process rights” while the litigation was ongoing. In this case, the resident argued that without the court’s immediate intervention to prevent the recertification process, he would lose his apartment, and, as a result, suffer irreparable harm if the order wasn’t granted.
In March 2022, the resident’s emotional support dog was involved in a confrontation with another dog. The site manager met with the resident to discuss the incident. The resident explained that both dogs were off leash at the time, and the manager informed the resident that the PHA’s policies required leashing animals at all times unless an accommodation had been granted. The manager gave the resident a reasonable accommodation request form.
The resident submitted the completed form, requesting an accommodation permitting him to allow his dog to be off leash "for training purposes during surgical recovery." The resident advised a member of the office staff that he wouldn’t obtain a signature from his physician verifying the need for the accommodation.
Another incident. While discussion of the request was ongoing among the management staff, the manager received a complaint from a pregnant resident who claimed that the resident's dog ran into her, "knocking her down causing her to have to seek medical attention." Another resident then confronted the resident animal owner regarding the safety concerns posed by the off-leash dog. The two engaged in "a few minutes of tense dialogue" before the animal owner called the police, and an officer appeared on the scene. The resident animal owner asked to complete a police report documenting that the other resident threatened to shoot his dog, but the officer declined.
Resident requests transfer. Soon after, the resident contacted the manager "requesting immediate emergency relocation to another 'Scattered Site' Housing Unit due to safety concerns for both my emotional support animal and myself." The manager forwarded the transfer request to the PHA’s central office, which approved the request on March 30, 2022, and advised the resident that his transfer date would depend on a waitlist for one-bedroom units. On April 5, 2022, the resident submitted another accommodation request form, this time seeking to qualify for a two-bedroom unit to circumvent the waitlist for one-bedroom units.
The manager then informed the resident that his accommodation request couldn’t be approved without verification of medical need by his physician. The following day, the resident sent a letter to the management staff stating, "I will be filing suit for relief in U.S. District Court in the days to come for the ongoing discrimination, harassment, retaliation and unsafe living conditions” the manager has created for him and his emotional support animal.
Leash exemption denied. The PHA’s attorney then sent the resident a letter regarding the request for an exemption from the PHA’s leashing policy. The PHA denied permission to keep his support animal off-leash on its property. The PHA found that the support animal has a documented history of aggressive behavior toward residents and staff as well as other animals and allowing the resident to keep the animal off leash would violate local ordinance and pose an unacceptable risk of harm to others. The letter noted that the PHA wants to work with the resident collaboratively to identify potential alternative accommodations to meet his needs.
Regarding the request to transfer to one of the available two-bedroom units at another property, the attorney stated, the PHA “could place you in a two-bedroom, single-family unit if you can provide a doctor's statement that it is necessary to accommodate your disability.” In the absence of such information, however, the PHA could offer transfer to a one-bedroom unit only. According to the PHA, the resident didn’t respond to the PHA’s request for a meeting, nor did he ever provide medical support for his request.
Recertification time. Then, in June 2022, the PHA sent the resident a letter instructing him to complete and return several attached recertification forms and to appear for a recertification interview. In response, the resident sent a "Notice to Cease and Desist" to the PHA’s attorney in which the resident stated that he received the letter from the PHA shortly after filing a complaint against the PHA to HUD. The resident asserted that the PHA was retaliating against him and was seeking an illegal eviction.
In response, the attorney sent a letter stating that the PHA wasn’t attempting to evict the resident. All residents receive the recertification packet each year and it’s totally unrelated to the resident’s HUD complaint. According to the PHA, the resident didn’t respond to this letter. The PHA sent a second notice and then a final notice to complete the recertification process.
Resident sues. The resident didn’t comply with the notices, and instead, on Sept. 30, 2022, the resident filed this lawsuit. Due to his failure to comply with the final notice, the PHA sent the resident a letter labeled "30 Day Lease Termination Letter with 'Right to Cure,'" which advised: “Your lease is being terminated on the grounds that you have not kept your required appointments in order to supply to management, any certification release, information, or documentation on family income or composition needed to process annual redetermination for rent. In order to avoid the termination of your lease you must remedy the conditions of the violation described above within thirty (30) days from the date of this letter.”
In November, the PHA sent a notice again requesting that resident complete the required recertification process, and offered to refer him to an eviction diversion program. The resident didn’t respond to the offer and instead filed for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order.
Court Sides with PHA
The court found that the PHA didn’t have an intention to evict the resident. The record showed that the PHA has “taken great pains” for the resident to be assured that this is not the case. Two months before the lease was set to expire, the PHA sent the documents required for annual recertification required by HUD. After the resident mistakenly characterized the request as unlawful, the PHA’s attorney clarified the recertification process and sent three additional notices. And the PHA also offered the resident an eviction diversion program to help him maintain his housing. The PHA’s actions showed that it made every effort to avoid terminating the resident’s lease. And the court found that the evidence established that resident's housing won’t be jeopardized unless he continues to refuse to complete the recertification process.
The court also noted that the resident’s desire to cease any contractual relationship with the PHA is inconsistent with his interest in continued housing as a tenant. And, more importantly, he’s failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of his claim for relief from the recertification requirement. Recertification is required of all tenants seeking to renew their leases, and this recertification requirement is a clear requirement of the lease.
HUD’s Publishes Fact Sheet on Assistance Animals and Fair Housing
HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity recently published a fact sheet to educate housing providers and persons with disabilities who seek reasonable accommodations related to assistance animals. The fact sheet can be found at https://files.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/Assistance-Animals-and-Fair-Housing-Navigating-Reasonable-Accommodations-Fact-Sheet.pdf.
Assistance animal characteristics. HUD’s fact sheet highlights the following facts regarding assistance animals:
- Assistance animals are not pets and are covered under the Fair Housing Act;
- Assistance animals are trained or untrained animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities;
- Assistance animals can be any common domestic household animal;
- An assistance animal assists a person with a disability-related need;
- Unique animals are not necessarily excluded, but the requestor may need to provide more information about why the animal that is not a common household animal is needed to meet the disability-related need.
Denying a request. According to HUD’s fact sheet, a reasonable accommodation must be granted where there is a nexus between a person’s disability and the requested accommodation—that is, the assistance that the animal provides to that person. The reasonable accommodation can be supported by a letter from a person knowledgeable about the individual’s need for the assistance animal, such as a healthcare professional, but such a letter is not required. A reasonable accommodation may be made at any time.
However, an owner can deny the request if it is an undue financial and administrative burden for the housing provider, or it would entail a fundamental alteration to the nature of the housing provider’s operations. Examples of requests that may be denied include:
- The request was not made by a person with a disability or on behalf of a person with a disability;
- There is no disability-related need for the accommodation requested;
- The specific animal in question poses a direct threat to the safety of others and there is evidence of such threat (such as testimony and video of the animal growling, barking, and lunging at multiple tenants in the lobby of the dwelling).
If you deny a request for a reasonable accommodation, you should be prepared to justify your decision. You should enter an “interactive process” before denying a request as unreasonable so as to discuss with the requestor whether any alternative accommodation would “effectively address” the individual’s disability-related needs without fundamentally altering the provider’s operations or causing an undue financial and administrative burden. The goal is to see if some sort of accommodation may still be achieved.