Lessons Learned from Recent Fair Housing Cases

In the July Fair Housing Coach, we take an in-depth look at some recent court rulings from around the country involving fair housing disputes. The people and particulars of each case may be unique, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn something by examining the details of each story like a detective. By reviewing the clues about what happened—and why—you can gain insight into how to handle similar problems that could arise in your community at any time.

For example, take The Case of the Barking Dog:

The problem: A resident raised a fair housing claim as a defense in proceedings to evict her for having an unauthorized dog and other lease violations.

What happened: The resident, who lived in a federally subsidized rental housing community, had a mental illness that qualified her for protection under federal fair housing laws.

When she got a dog, she submitted a doctor’s note stating that she would “benefit from a pet companion on a physical and emotional basis.” The property manager asked for additional paperwork, including proof that the dog was licensed and vaccinated, but instead of providing the paperwork, the resident sent the dog to live with friends.

The resident later signed a pet policy agreement. Since the dog wasn’t living with her then, she checked a box indicating that she didn’t have a dog. Although she took the dog back, she didn’t inform the community or request an accommodation.

Meanwhile, her lease was renewed for another year and the property manager conducted an inspection a short time later. As she entered the unit, the manager said that the smell of pet urine and feces was overwhelming. She said there was substantial damage to the unit and that the dog barked constantly during the inspection.

The manager later explained that this was her first opportunity to confirm that the resident had a dog in the unit, although neighbors had filed written complaints about the dog’s incessant barking and the overwhelming smell of animal urine and feces seeping into their units. 

During eviction proceedings, the resident accused the community of violated fair housing law by failing to grant her a reasonable accommodation. The court sided with the community, and resident appealed.

What would you do? If you had been the manager, would you have done anything differently? Do you think the community was legally required to allow the resident to remain in the unit? If so, must the community allow her to keep the dog?

Court ruling: Upholding the eviction, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that the community did not violate fair housing law.

Although the resident qualified for protection under fair housing law, the court ruled that the community wasn’t liable for failure to make a reasonable accommodation, because she never asked for one. The community tried to get information about the dog so that a reasonable accommodation could be made, but the resident refused to cooperate and denied she even owned a dog. A landlord is obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation to a resident only if a request has been made [Meadowland Apartments v. Schumacher, April 2012].

Lessons learned:

  • Keep good records to defend the community against fair housing claims—whether raised in a formal discrimination complaint or as a defense in eviction proceedings.
  • Follow standard procedures for handling requests for reasonable accommodations—and document the dates and details of interactions with the resident to ward off allegations that the community ignored or delayed response to accommodation requests.
  • Adopt a process to handle neighbors’ complaints about lease violations by residents. Written records of the complaints, the results of a prompt investigation, and the outcome can protect the community from allegations of unlawful discrimination.

For more recent cases and “lessons learned,” see the July Fair Housing Coach, available on our homepage.