The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Kent State University (KSU) reached a $145,000 settlement over claims of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) on January 4, 2016. In 2014, DOJ initiated a lawsuit against KSU and four of its employees for disability discrimination due to KSU's denial of a request to allow a student suffering from a psychological disability and her husband to keep an emotional support dog in their university-operated student apartment. The plaintiffs in the case originally filed a fair housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The case was referred to DOJ after determining KSU and its employees committed housing discrimination.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates accessibility requirements for various commercial or public establishments including universities, owners must reasonably accommodate by allowing trained service dogs but are not required to permit other animals or untrained comfort dogs. The FHA includes broader reasonable accommodation rules that include any kind of animal, whether trained or not, and including those merely providing comfort or therapy for the effects of the person's disability.

Under the then-existing housing policy, KSU did not permit students to live with untrained assistance animals in university-owned student housing, and did not allow for pets other than fish. KSU's policy, in line with the ADA, provided exceptions for service animal dogs, but prohibited all other animals (including comfort animals). The student and her husband requested permission for an emotional support animal as a housing accommodation following the recommendation of the University Health Services psychologist caring for her.  KSU officials denied the request, which prompted the student and her husband to move out of their university housing.

Over the course of litigation, KSU unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the FHA did not apply to student housing, and that under a theory of qualified immunity, the right to keep a therapy dog in university housing was not mandated. Based on the language in the FHA and implementing HUD regulations, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled that the definition of "dwelling" included student housing and university-owned housing which meant the FHA applied for purposes of determining whether allowing a comfort animal on a property was a reasonable accommodation. KSU's policy was too narrow and needed to be expanded to include the broader definition of assistance animals under the FHA. 

As part of the settlement, KSU agreed to pay:

  • $100,000 to two former students denied reasonable accommodations to keep emotional support dogs in their university apartments
  • $30,000 to the fair housing organization that advocated on behalf of the students, and
  • $15,000 to the United States.

KSU also agreed to adopt a housing policy allowing students with psychological disabilities to keep therapeutic support animals within university housing, provided that allowing the comfort animals would not fundamentally alter the nature of the housing. The settlement agreement is currently awaiting court approval. 

Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Housing and Higher Education Groups regularly counsel clients on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act and have experience drafting policies related to services and accommodations for the disabled. For additional information, please contact Olabisi "Bisi" Okubadejo at 410.528.5532 or okubadejoo@ballardspahr.com or Shanellah Verna at 202.661.7684 or vernas@ballardspahr.com.

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