TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights announced today the settlement of two separate disability discrimination cases – both involving disabled New Jersey residents who were denied permission to keep medically-prescribed support dogs by the governing boards of their respective housing complexes.
In one case, Harbortown Sail, a residential complex located in Perth Amboy, agreed to pay a condominium renter $10,000 to resolve allegations it unlawfully discriminated by denying the woman’s request to keep a support dog that her prescribing physician told the Division would lessen her reliance on opioid pain medications.
In the other case Landmark East Corp., corporate owner of a housing complex in Ridgefield Park, paid a resident $16,000 to resolve allegations it unlawfully discriminated by denying the man permission to keep a medically-prescribed support dog that his treating physician described as “necessary” for his health.
“These are fair settlements that resolve troubling cases – cases in which residents with a documented disability were treated in ‘hardball’ fashion by governing boards that apparently did not recognize the distinction between a pet and a clinically-prescribed emotional support animal,” said Attorney General Grewal. “These cases should serve as a message to landlords – as well as the governing boards of condominiums and cop-ops across the state – that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) was created to protect the rights of people with disabilities, including those who require service dogs and emotional support animals. We are committed to upholding the LAD.”
Harbortown Sail, a townhome-style condominium community, allows unit owners to keep one domestic pet, but maintains a “no pets” policy for renters. In July 2015 a husband and wife signed a one-year lease – the wife suffers from multiple medical conditions including lupus, diabetes and neuropathy – and began occupying a two-bedroom unit, along with the wife’s support dog.
The wife – identified only as “T.D.” to protect her medical privacy – was advised by Harbortown’s management in August 2015 that as a renter she could not keep the dog. In response, T.D. submitted a letter from her treating physician opining that she “meets the definition of disability” and needs a support dog to help her cope with multiple illnesses. Harbortown’s Board rejected the doctor’s letter and denied permission for T.D. to keep the dog because the letter was not written on an authorized physician’s prescription pad.
The Board then followed up with a certified letter to T.D.’s husband advising that the couple’s lease was being terminated, and that they must vacate their rental property by January 31, 2016. Only after T.D. got rid of her support dog and advised the Board of its removal – in mid-January 2016 – did management rescind the lease termination.
During the Division on Civil Rights investigation, T.D.’s treating physician told an investigator she suffered chronic pain in her arms and lower back and the support dog helped T.D. cope better with her pain, and therefore use less opioid pain medication. The doctor also said he’d deliberately used his own office stationary in writing a letter on her behalf to the Harbortown Board, because prescription pads can be stolen.
In addition to the $10,000 settlement payout to T.D., Harbortown must revise its policy for reviewing and processing requests for exemption from its no pets rule.
Among other changes, the Board must eliminate its requirement that medical documentation be submitted only on a prescription pad. The revised policy must “acknowledge that there is a distinction between a service animal, such as a service dog, and an emotional support animal.” The updated policy also must recognize that, under the LAD “service dogs are not considered pets and shall be entitled to full and equal access to all housing accommodations.”
As part of the settlement, T.D. can submit a future request for permission to keep a support dog in her unit at Harbortown, and the Board must be guided by its revised policy. The Board also must arrange training on federal and state fair housing laws for all of Harbortown’s employees and managers.
In the Landmark East case, resident H.G. suffers from anxiety and depression.
Three weeks after he moved in, H.G. wrote to Landmark East requesting permission to have a five-pound terrier live with him as an emotional support animal. A letter provided by his clinical psychologist noted that H.G. required an emotional support dog to help him cope, function more normally on a daily basis, and to “mitigate the symptoms he is currently experiencing.”
In response, Landmark East’s attorney sent a letter to H.G. indicating that the Board of Directors was “extremely disturbed” by his request to keep a service dog, and also accusing him of having acted “fraudulently” by signing a “no pet/sublet” letter when he obtained his housing unit.
H.G. then obtained a second letter from his treating physician explaining that an emotional support animal is “necessary for his emotional/mental health.” H.G. did not formally submit the letter to Landmark East, however, because he was unable to obtain a “physician’s verification request form” that he was told must accompany the submission. In fact, no such form existed.
On August 19, 2015, Landmark East sent a Notice of Violation to H.G. stating that he was in breach of the complex’s no pets restriction, and that his account would be fined $25 per week while the dog remained in his unit.
Landmark also threatened to terminate H.G.’s ownership interest in his unit within a week and sell his shared at public auction. After H.G. sought recourse through the Division on Civil Rights and incurred thousands of dollars in legal fees, Landmark East decided that his support dog could stay.
Under the settlement announced today, the Respondent must arrange for anti-discrimination training of its property managers, and “develop policies and procedures consistent with the agreement, with the goal of ensuring compliance with the Law Against Discrimination.”
Landmark East Corp. must submit to Division monitoring of its housing practices for two years and provide anti-discrimination training for its employees, managers, board members and agents. Landmark East is also subject to a $5,000 suspended civil penalty.
Deputy Attorney General Farng-Yi D. Foo and DCR Investigator Darren Bloom handled the Harbortown matter on behalf of the Division. Deputy Attorney General Beverley Lapsley and DCR Investigator Adriana Tovar handled the Landmark East matter.
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