HUD Sues Landlords for $16,000 for Discrimination Against Veteran with Assistance Animal – by the Editors of Rental Housing Journal

Reprinted with permission of  the Apartment Owners Association

Landlords who refused to waive the pet deposit for a combat veteran with an emotional support dog have been charged with discrimination and violating the Fair Housing Act, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), according to a release.

The veteran was renting a single-family home in Moore, Oklahoma, and asked that the $250 pet deposit be waived because his dog was an emotional support animal needed to assist him with his disability. The veteran provided landlords a letter from his doctor, according to the complaint. Under the law, assistance animals are not considered pets.

According to the charge, the combat veteran is diagnosed with service-connected Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). These mental impairments substantially limit his personal, work, and social life. His disability symptoms include anxiety, isolation, avoidance, and a difficulty in public, as well as difficulty with interpersonal relationships and insomnia. He is an individual with a disability as defined by the Fair Housing Act.

In the letter to the landlords, the doctor stated that the veteran was diagnosed with PTSD following a combat tour of deployment and he was being treated at Oklahoma City Veterans Administration Medical Center. The letter further stated that dogs can often provide combat veterans support when PTSD symptoms escalate, and that veteran’s dog often keeps his PTSD symptoms in check.

The complaint says the dog, an emotional support animal, improves the veteran’s insomnia, gets him out of the house because he has to walk the dog, improves his mood, and provides comfort and support because he has a limited social system.

The tenant complained that AMH 2015-1 Borrower, LLC, and its management company, AH4R Management – OK, LLC, refused to waive their pet deposit fee. The leasing agent told the veteran, according to the complaint, “Unfortunately my broker said only service dogs are waived. I’m sorry I tried.”

The veteran then provided a link to websites with information on emotional support animals in rental housing units that included an example demonstrating landlords should not charge pet deposits for assistance animals and included the statement “Landlords cannot… [a]sk a tenant to pay a deposit, fee, or surcharge in exchange for having a service or emotional support animal, even if they require such a practice from owners who wish to obtain pets in their dwelling,” the complaint states.

After the company refused, the veteran paid the pet deposit and moved into the property.

The rental management told the veteran they had been advised by their attorney that the deposit had to be paid and that he “accepted their decision to not waive the pet deposit fee when he signed the lease and moved into the property,” according to the complaint.

The veteran replied that he was not OK with that decision, and he filed a complaint. The management company has since refunded his $250 deposit.

However, in the complaint HUD is asking for $16,000 in civil penalties from the management company for discrimination and violation of the Fair Housing Act “when they refused to waive the pet deposit for complainant’s emotional support animal,” according to the complaint.

Fair Housing Act and pet deposits for tenants with disabilities

The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing providers from denying or limiting housing to persons with disabilities, or from refusing to make reasonable accommodations in policies or practices for people with disabilities. This includes waiving pet fees for persons with disabilities who use assistance animals.

Disability is the most common basis of fair housing complaints filed with HUD and its partner agencies, according to the release. Last year alone, HUD and its partners considered over 4,900 disability-related complaints, or more than 58 percent of all fair housing complaints.

HUD’s charge will be heard by a United States Administrative Law Judge unless any party to the charge elects to have the case heard in federal district court. If an administrative law judge finds after a hearing that discrimination has occurred, he or she may award damages to the complainant for their loss as a result of the discrimination. The judge may also order injunctive relief and other equitable relief, as well as payment of attorney fees. In addition, the judge may impose civil penalties in order to vindicate the public interest. If the case is heard in federal court, the judge may also award punitive damages to the complainant.

Matthew Wildman from The Humane Society of the United States provided this question and answer on pets:

Question:  I am confused over the terminology of service animal, assistance animal and companion animal. Tenants use different terms such as these to refer to their pets. How do I as a landlord know which is which?

Answer: “Companion animals” or “companion pets” are interchangeable terms with the most common term, “pets.” For some reason, the term “companion animal” is perceived by many in the multifamily housing industry to mean something different than a “pet,” but there is no difference.  The terms that are of relevance to housing providers encountering requests for reasonable accommodation are “assistance animals” (also commonly referred to as “emotional support animals”) and “service animals.” An assistance animal can be any animal who is commonly referred to as a pet, but the difference is that their owner has a disability for which the animal is needed to either provide assistance in managing activities of daily living, and/or provides support that alleviates the symptoms or effects of the person’s disability. An “emotional support animal” is a type of assistance animal that provides emotional support that improves the symptoms of an individual’s disability.

According to the Department of Justice, a “service animal” may be a dog or miniature horse who has been trained to perform a specific task(s). Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals living with a disability are legally entitled to bring these animals into places of public accommodation as well as their residence regardless of any pet restrictions. The most common example of a service animal is a Seeing-Eye dog, but not all disabilities requiring service animals are obvious. For example, individuals suffering from PTSD may need their dog with them at all times. This dog may be trained to sit calmly beside their owner.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that service and assistance animals are not considered pets, meaning that pet rules – such as no-pet policies, breed and size restrictions, pet deposits and fees – don’t apply to them, but owners are responsible for any damage they cause.

RentalHousingJournal.com, an interactive community of multifamliy investors, independent rental home owners, residential property management professionals and other rental housing & real estate professionals, is the most comprehensive source for news and information for the rental housing industry. This website features exclusive articles and blogs on real estate investing, apartment market trends, property management best practices, landlord tenant laws, apartment marketing, maintenance and more.  Reprinted with permission.

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