The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is applicable to nearly all types of housing. Under the FHA, housing providers are obligated to permit, as a reasonable accommodation, the use of animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks that benefit persons with disabilities, or provide emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of a disability.

In June of this year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) settled a civil rights lawsuit alleging that RiverBay Corporation (RiverBay), which manages a housing cooperative in New York called Co-op City, maintained and employed an overly burdensome and intrusive policy governing waivers to its “no pets” rule. Specifically, the DOJ asserted that the policy instituted by RiverBay deterred and prevented persons with disabilities from obtaining reasonable accommodations and that RiverBay used the policy to unlawfully deny accommodation requests.

RiverBay’s policy seemingly failed to provide reasonable accommodations to people who require service or assistance animals. More specifically, until December 2011, RiverBay’s application for requesting a reasonable accommodation to its no-pets rule consisted of the following: (1) five forms (including one required to be completed only in blue ink and another required to be typewritten); (2) certain breeds of dogs were prohibited; (3) animals were required to be neutered or spayed; (4) annual renewal requirements; and (5) the applicant was required to provide his or her medical records.

Since December 2011, RiverBay has amended its reasonable accommodation policy on two separate occasions. However, many of the provisions in the first policy were left in place. And, throughout the years, many requests for reasonable accommodations to the no-pets rule were denied.

In settling the lawsuit, RiverBay and the DOJ entered into a mutual agreement called a Consent Decree. The Consent Decree provided that RiverBay adopt a reasonable accommodation policy regarding assistance animals, pay a civil penalty of up to $50,000, and dedicate as much as $600,000 to compensate people who have been harmed by inadequate accessibility at Co-op City.

Because of the potential legal ramifications, business entities are advised to review existing policies and requirements related to assistive animals to ensure continued compliance with the FHA.

To read the DOJ’s report on the RiverBay lawsuit, click here and to read the Consent Decree, click here.