Bolek Besser Glesius has helped win a landmark Cuyahoga County disability discrimination case involving the rights of individuals with mental health conditions under the Fair Housing Act (the “FHA”) and Ohio law. The case appears to be the first in Cuyahoga County, and only the second in Ohio, to hold that emotional assistance animals are a reasonable accommodation under the FHA and Ohio law.
An emotional assistance animal is a household animal that provides companionship and support to individuals with mental health conditions. Although many people do not realize it, they are a well-accepted method of treatment. A problem can arise, however, when a housing provider has a no-pets rule that conflicts with the resident’s need to keep the animal as part of his or her treatment.
Similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act in the employment law context, the Fair Housing Act and Ohio law require that housing providers grant reasonable accommodations to residents with disabilities. Generally, that means a housing provider must grant exceptions to its rules when necessary to allow a resident with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy his or her place of residence. In response to conflicts between no-pets rules and the rights of individuals with mental health conditions, in 2008, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Justice—which share enforcement authority for the FHA—jointly recognized emotional assistance animals as a reasonable accommodation for mental health conditions. Since then, several courts have as well, although none in Cuyahoga County and only one in Ohio.
Co-counseling with students from the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Bolek Besser Glesius represented an individual with a mental health condition who asked her condominium association for an accommodation of its no-dogs rule in order to keep her small dog, which is an integral part of her treatment. The association declined to grant her request, instead filing a declaratory judgment lawsuit against her in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. On her behalf, we brought a disability discrimination counterclaim for denial of a reasonable accommodation under the FHA and Ohio law.
In its recent ruling on the case, the Court held that as a matter of law, our client’s request to keep her emotional assistance dog was a request for a reasonable accommodation. The Court also held that the condo association denied that request in violation of Ohio and federal law.
When we see someone with a seeing-eye dog, we immediately recognize that person has a physical impairment, and understand the animal is an accommodation to assist the person live with the impairment. Although they are not visible to the naked eye, mental health conditions can be a disability too. And individuals with mental health disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations, just like individuals with physical disabilities. The Court’s decision in our case is a step in helping spread greater awareness on this important disability discrimination issue.