What We Can Learn from a Little Dog in the Big Apple

Posted by Stephen Marshall on

Mr. Coleman has lived at his current apartment for eight years. His original lease, which has been renewed every year, does not allow him to have any pets. About two years ago, Mr. Coleman began having panic attacks on a daily basis. At the urging of his family, he began seeing a Licensed Clinical Psychologist on a regular basis.

Shortly after he began seeing his psychologist, he bought a small dachshund, which he brought to live with him in his apartment. Thereafter, his panic attacks began to decrease to the point where they rarely occurred. He reported this information to his psychologist, who prepared a letter stating that the dog served as an emotional support animal for Mr. Coleman and was a necessary form of support for Mr. Coleman’s disability.


About six months later, Mr. Coleman’s landlord learned about the dog being on the property and immediately sent Mr. Coleman a notice that his tenancy would be terminated if the dog was not removed from the property. In response, Mr. Coleman went to his landlord and explained that the dog helped him cope with his panic attacks. He presented the landlord with the letter from his psychologist stating that the dog was prescribed to him as a support animal, and he asked the landlord to allow him to keep the dog for that reason. The landlord told Mr. Coleman that he would consider the request, and the meeting ended.

Two weeks later, the landlord filed an eviction against Mr. Coleman, stating that he had not properly demonstrated his need for the dog. Did the landlord make the right decision?

Those of you who subscribe to my e-mail list (which can be done at the bottom of this page or by sending a request to kylandlordlaw@gmail.com) or who follow the Facebook page for this site (found here) probably recognize this fact pattern. Late last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a press release that it had made a preliminary finding of housing discrimination against a landlord in New York City based on this exact scenario. You can find the article here, and the charge made by HUD after its investigation here.

Unfortunately for the landlord, it did not make the right decision to try to evict the tenant for violating the lease provision against having pets on the premises. As a result, the landlord is now being sued by the HUD attorneys, at no cost to the tenant, who are seeking money for the tenant, plus a civil penalty of $16,000.00 against the both the owner and manager, and additional relief, such as attorney’s fees.

It’s always best to learn from the mistakes of others before we make our own. Here’s what we can learn from the NYC incident:

  1. Read kylandlordlaw.com religiously. I’m only half joking, as the landlord in question would have saved himself thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees alone simply by reading my free blog posts.
  2. It doesn’t matter if the tenant only requested the accommodation after “getting caught”. In this case, the tenant brought the dog onto the property first, then only requested the accommodation after the landlord found out about the dog. The only issue is whether the tenant has a disability related need for the accommodation, not the timing of the request. In other words, don’t try to use a technicality (“he didn’t ask until we caught him”) to deny a needed accommodation.
  3. It doesn’t matter that the tenant didn’t use the words “reasonable accommodation” when talking to his landlord. If the tenant asks for something that is not allowed by your current rules or policies because he or she is disabled, that counts as an accommodation request, regardless of the particular language used.
  4. While landlords have to play numerous roles in the course of their business, medical professional is not one of them. Leave the medical diagnoses to the experts. If you do not believe a diagnosis is accurate, you need to challenge it with your own expert, not your opinion.
  5. Don’t cut off communication. Even if you don’t believe that the tenant has “demonstrated” a need for the accommodation, communicate this to the tenant, and then work with the tenant to determine what would sufficiently “demonstrate” the need or to find alternatives to the requested accommodation. Continuing to dialogue with the tenant in good faith about how to meet his needs will go a long way in preventing housing discrimination claims and findings.

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