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Focus on Regulation

Justice Department Settles Fair Housing Act Lawsuit Alleging Discrimination in On-Campus Housing

shutterstock_137657318The U.S. Department of Justice announced on January 4 that Kent State University (KSU) has agreed to pay $145,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that KSU had a policy that prevented students with psychological disabilities from keeping emotional support animals in university-operated student housing.  This settlement follows a decision by the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska in United States v. University of Nebraska at Kearney, 4:11-cv-03209 (April 19, 2013), that the Fair Housing Act applies to college and university dormitories.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. In 2014 the Justice Department brought suit alleging that KSU violated the Fair Housing Act when it denied the request of a student and her husband to keep an emotional support dog in their university-operated student apartment. The student suffered from a panic disorder and anxiety for which a university psychologist had recommended she be allowed to keep a dog for emotional support.  The student initially filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD investigated the complaint and, after determining that KSU had violated the Fair Housing Act, referred the matter to the Justice Department. The Justice Department alleged that KSU engaged in discriminatory conduct by treating students with emotional and psychological disabilities less favorably than students with other disabilities and by refusing to provide accommodations to individuals with disabilities seeking to live in university housing with animals that are not specially trained as “service animals.”

Under the proposed settlement agreement, which the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio must approve, KSU has agreed to:

  • Pay $100,000 to the student and her husband, who was also a KSU student, $30,000 to a fair housing organization that advocated on behalf of the students, and $15,000 to the United States;
  • Adopt a policy that will allow persons with psychological disabilities to keep animals with them in university housing when those animals provide necessary therapeutic benefits and would not fundamentally alter the nature of the housing arrangements; and
  • Conduct in-person education and training regarding the disability discrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Act, for employees involved in review of reasonable accommodation requests or creation of related university policies.

Attachment A of the proposed settlement agreement contains a copy of KSU’s revised housing policy, including an application form to be used by students requesting reasonable accommodation and guidelines regarding assistance animals.

According to Gustavo Velasquez, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, the proposed settlement signals that “[p]roviders of on-campus housing have the same obligation to comply with the Fair Housing Act as other housing providers.” Although KSU admitted to no wrongdoing in the proposed settlement, colleges and universities should review their student housing policies and judicial decisions in light of the government’s position that the university should have accommodated the student’s request to live with an emotional support animal.