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HUD Says Maine Landlord Wouldn't Allow Disabled Vet to have Assistance Animal

By Elizabeth Whitman | July 15, 2019

HUD recently charged a Maine landlord with housing discrimination for not allowing a disabled veteran to have an assistance animal in his apartment. According to HUD’s Charge of Discrimination (HUD Charge) against Roderick Apartments, LLC, Jo Roderick told the veteran that once she allowed a tenant to have an assistance animal, and other tenants wanted to get pets also.

More than 3,00 HUD homes are available in Florida alone

The HUD Charge also says that a not-for-profit legal assistance organization had the same experience. The organization had a “tester” contact Roderick about renting an apartment. When the tester told Roderick she had an assistance dog, Roderick told her that would be grounds for eviction.

Assistance animals aren’t pets. They are working animals that help disabled individuals. An assistance animal may perform tasks the disabled person cannot perform, such as retrieving objects. Or, the animal may alert the disabled person of a pending medical crisis, such as an oncoming epileptic seizure or low blood sugar.

Fair Housing Act and Assistance Animals

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination against tenants based upon race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. The FHA also requires landlords to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled tenants. For some tenants, that may involve allowing an assistance animal. 

From the HUD Charge, it sounds like that landlord treated assistance animals the same as pets. Because an assistance animal isn’t a pet, the landlord can’t ban it under a no pets policy. Nor may the landlord require a pet fee or deposit for an assistance animal. 

The landlord can ask disabled tenants with assistance animals two questions: 1) whether the tenant has a disability, and 2) whether the animal’s services alleviate a symptom of the disability. Landlords can’t ask what disability the tenant has. Landlords may ask for documentation of the disability or animal’s training only if the disability animal’s purpose are not obvious.

HUD Investigation of Fair Housing Charges

When a tenant files a fair housing charge, HUD (or a state or local agency) will investigate the charge. Investigation usually includes interviewing the tenant who complained. Usually, the investigator also will interview the landlord and possibly, its employees. Depending on the complaint, the investigator may inspect the property, request documents, or interview witnesses.  

The investigator prepares a written report and sends it to the landlord and tenant. In Roderick’s case, the report found reasonable cause that the landlord discriminated against the tenant. Since the case wasn’t settled, HUD filed a charge of discrimination.

Settling Fair Housing Complaints

Many Fair Housing complaints are settled by the parties. If HUD approves a settlement, the landlord and tenant will sign a Conciliation Agreement or Voluntary Compliance Agreement on HUD’s form. 

Although a complaint can be settled any time, if there is any basis to the tenant’s complaint, landlords usually should try to settle the complaint early. HUD investigations can disrupt the landlord’s business. Plus, quick settlement can minimize the landlord’s attorney fees.

What Roderick Might Have Done Differently

From the HUD Charge, it sounds like there was a lot of evidence against Roderick. Perhaps that landlord should have settled complaint to prevent the time, money, and negative press from a formal charge. 

The HUD investigation did not end well for Roderick. Roderick now is the subject of a nationally-distributed news release announcing the HUD Charge.

This landlord now not only must address the “court” of public opinion, but Roderick also must take time away from business and pay an attorney to defend the HUD Charge. If the landlord loses, Roderick could have to pay damages, penalties, and the tenant’s attorney fees.

What a Landlord Should do if it Receives a Fair Housing Complaint

With strong fair housing policies and procedures, other landlords can find themselves in a better position if a tenant files a fair housing complaint. Landlords facing a complaint should take these steps:

  • Check If You Have Insurance. Check with your insurance agent to see if you have insurance that will pay for an attorney. If there is insurance coverage, report the complaint to the insurance company.
  • Preserve Documents. There are penalties for destroying documents after a complaint. Landlords should be sure that they and their property managers keep all documents and communications, including emails, texts, and voicemails, even if normally those items would be deleted after a period of time.
  • Don’t Retaliate. It’s illegal to retaliate against a tenant for filing a complaint, even if the complaint is unfounded. It’s also illegal to take action against witnesses or others who help the HUD investigation.
  • Hire an attorney. If a charge is filed, the tenant will have a HUD attorney working on their behalf. The landlord should hire an attorney at the beginning of the investigation to assure the landlord’s interests are equally represented.
  • Respond honestly. Honesty is the best policy. If the landlord or a property manager violated fair housing laws, it is better to be honest and perhaps to settle, rather than to cover it up.  
  • Consider Settlement. Landlords naturally want to fight fair housing complaints, but that isn’t always the best thing for the landlord. If the landlord or property manager violated fair housing laws, the best option may be to settle the complaint and make policy improvements to prevent a recurrence. Sometimes, a settlement can be the least disruptive and costly response even where the landlord believes it did nothing wrong. An attorney can help the landlord determine what is best for its business.

Preventing Fair Housing Complaints

If a landlord receives a fair housing complaint, it should evaluate its business practices to see if they are discriminatory. If so, the policies should be changed.

Sometimes complaints result from policies that aren’t discriminatory but which can be improved. For instance, poor communication can cause a tenant to conclude there was discrimination even though the landlord had a good reason for its decision.

Landlords also should be sure that they know state and local fair housing laws. They may include protections for groups, such as LGBTQ, who are not covered by the FHA. An attorney can help the landlord create written policies which are both legal and minimize the likelihood of future complaints.

Elizabeth Whitman is an attorney and broker who has represented clients in more than $1.3 billion in real estate transactions.Elizabeth's law firm, Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC, is located in suburban Washington, DC and represents real estate owners and securities sponsors throughout the nation.
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