On January 20, 2022, the court entered a consent order in United States v. Howitt-Paul Road, LLC (W.D.N.Y.). The election complaint, filed on December 3, 2021, alleges that Defendants Howitt-Paul Road, LLC d/b/a Greenwood Townhomes, Midland Management, LLC, and Amy Kells — the owner and property managers of a 110-unit townhouse complex in Rochester, New York — violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent a unit to the complainant because she had an assistance dog. The consent order requires the defendants to pay the complainant $10,000, adopt a new assistance animal policy, and obtain Fair Housing Act training. The case was referred to the Division after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received a complaint, conducted an investigation, and issued a charge of discrimination.
Case Open Date: Tuesday, January 25, 2022
Case Name: United States v. Howitt-Paul (W.D. N.Y.)
Tags: Greenwood Townhomes; Midland Management; Amy Kells; FHA; disability; reasonable accommodations; anxiety; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; assistance animal; pet fee
Industry Code: None
Component: Civil Rights – Housing and Civil Enforcement Section
Case Documents: Complaint – United States v. Howitt-Paul Road, LLC (W.D. N.Y.)
Consent Decree – United States v. Howitt-Paul Road, LLC (W.D. N.Y.)
In this case that resulted in a settlement, there are multiple issues at play, many of which are very common when handling requests for assistance animals. Per the facts alleged in the Complaint, the applicant was asked on the rental application if she had a pet and she responded that she did not. She did not raise the fact that she had an emotional support dog until the lease signing. The Defendant’s housing provider allegedly informed her that she would need to provide medical documentation as verification, and she, in turn, provided them with a letter that had been written by her healthcare provider approximately seven months prior. The Defendant would not accept the letter because the provider had a Florida address, and the property is located in New York. They asked that the provider fill out Defendant’s verification form, which the verifier refused to do, as she believed the same information had already been provided in the letter. After the verifier refused to complete the additional paperwork, Defendant allegedly ended the lease-signing process due to the fact that the applicant had failed to disclose the animal on the application and because of the breed and size of the dog (115 lb Cane Corso).
Disclosing the Animal: The applicant may have failed to disclose the fact that she had a dog on the application, but if the application inquires specifically about pets, an assistance animal would not fall into that category. Also, a request for reasonable accommodation can be made at any time, so the fact that it happened to be made during the lease-signing meeting was not ideal, but shouldn’t be a reason to deny housing (or the accommodation).
Out-of-State Verifier: Some states have adopted ESA laws that require a healthcare provider to be licensed in that state in order to verify a request. However, be aware that the Fair Housing Act does not have such a requirement, and HUD has explicitly recognized the notion that social workers, therapists, etc. that provide services via an online platform are just as legitimate as those that provide in-person services. So while receiving a verification from an out-of-state provider may call the verifier’s reliability into question, it should not be a reason, in and of itself, to reject a verification.
Sending the Verification Form: If a letter is provided as verification, it must be reviewed and considered. If a letter contains all of the information necessary to make a decision on a request, then additional verification is typically not needed, and really should not be sought. However, if the letter contains inadequate information OR if the letter is from a provider that you have reason to believe does not have adequate knowledge of the tenant/applicant, follow-up inquiries may be warranted. In this case, it does not sound like the follow-up form was an attempt to determine the reliability of the provider; it was simply asking questions that had already been addressed in the letter. Be careful about redundant verification efforts. If you send additional forms or questions, they should only request information that is still missing or needed to clarify an issue.
Size and Breed of Animal: A 115 lb dog is admittedly quite large, and Cane Corsos do have a reputation for having a certain temperament. (This author is making no representations regarding these animals or common perceptions of them.) However, no housing provider may exclude such an animal if it is a verified assistance animal. Breeds that are restricted as pets may not be restricted as assistance animals, nor can any assistance animal have a size/weight restriction.
Assistance animals continue to be one of the leading fair housing claims. If you encounter a situation and you are unsure of how to proceed, a best practice would be to consult a fair housing attorney to avoid doing what the defendants did in this case.