PHA Liable for Disability Discrimination
Facts: A disabled resident undergoing mental health treatment sued the local PHA for discrimination based on the PHA’s policy concerning “therapy pets.” A month after he moved in, the resident got a cat, and sometime later got a second cat. He claimed that his cats help to manage his depression and anxiety by giving him purpose and otherwise making him feel happy.
At first, the site permitted the resident to keep the cats as therapy animals. But the PHA changed its policy after a resident left a dog chained behind one of the site’s buildings and failed to clean up after it. The PHA decided to tighten its therapy animal policy, including adding a requirement that the animal be documented by a medical doctor. The PHA wouldn’t accept letters from psychologists, psychotherapists, or other non-medical therapists. The PHA later issued a revised policy requiring “[a] letter from a licensed psychiatrist qualified to attest to the need for the companion animal,” and allowing only one therapy animal per authorized resident.
The day after the new pet policy was distributed to all residents, the manager posted a violation notice on the resident’s door. Eventually, the resident was given a 30-day notice to vacate. The resident provided a letter from his therapist, stating that the resident “is dealing with a chronic mental illness” that creates “increased difficulty coping with stress, and calming himself when agitated. It is helpful when dealing with the symptoms, for him to have his cats in his home. The companionship and comfort that emotional support animals provide is soundly supported in research, and thus I am recommending that [he] continue to have his emotional support animals.”
The resident sent an email with copies of medical provider statements in support of his disability, and asking the PHA to reconsider the eviction. The manager wrote back, asserting that there was nothing in the resident’s file that stated that the resident was disabled.
Ruling: A Colorado district court granted a judgment without a trial in the resident’s favor.
Reasoning: The court found that no reasonable jury could agree with the PHA that it never denied the resident’s reasonable accommodation request. The resident had been repeatedly diagnosed with emotional disorders or mental illnesses that affect the major life activity of effective mental functioning. The court found that no reasonable jury, properly instructed, could fail to conclude that the resident’s extensive medical history establishes a record of disability under the Fair Housing Act.
The resident communicated the claimed disability in person and in writing on multiple occasions to the management. And the resident presented evidence from competent professional sources that he receives important mental health benefits from having the cats. The PHA presented no evidence otherwise. Therefore, the resident established that accommodation, in the form of keeping the cats, may have been necessary to afford him an equal opportunity (as compared to nondisabled individuals) to use and enjoy his unit. The court found that the PHA had the opportunity to make an informed decision with regard to the accommodation request, and it improperly denied the accommodation.
- McFadden v. Meeker Housing Authority, February 2019