An Iowa Landlord Loses a Lawsuit After Making Accommodation for a Disabled Tenant
The Iowa Supreme Court has issued a controversial legal ruling that held that a landlord was obligated to turn away a tenant with an emotional support dog. This was a rare case that found that reasonable accommodations for a disabled person were actually against the law in one case. Here, civil rights law for the disabled was in conflict with the terms of the contract that a landlord had with another tenant. A divided court held that the contract which came first had precedence, and the landlord breached that contract when he allowed someone with a dog to move into the premises.
One Tenant Had a Pet Allergy, the Other Needed a Pet
The issue in this case was that a tenant had a severe pet allergy. She had already signed a lease and was living in the building when the landlord made accommodation for another tenant who needed an emotional support pet. The building had a no-pets policy but the landlord believed that he needed to make an accommodation due to the disability of another prospective tenant. The landlord, aware of the no-pet policy and the allergy of the other tenant, tried to make allowances to accommodate both of the tenants. He had them use different entrances and staircases and provided an air purifier to the allergic resident. The landlord was under the impression that Iowa law required that he accept the resident with the disability.
The allergic tenant filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the landlord, claiming that the pet directly jeopardized her health. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with her. The Court held that the tenant with the allergy had priority because she was there first, and the emotional support dog put her health in immediate jeopardy. While it seems that the Iowa Supreme Court dealt a critical blow to the rights of disabled people, the Court specifically denied that it was making any kind of new rule. Instead, the Court said that its holding was based on the facts and circumstances of the case, comparing the needs of the two plaintiffs. While the landlord tried a Solomonic approach, the Court found that one plaintiff had priority over the other. What made this court holding even tougher for the landlord was that he merely followed telephonic guidance that he received from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission when he inquired how he was to legally handle the situation.
In the end, this was a small claims court case that made it all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. The tenant was only awarded a month's rent. However, this was considered to be a major victory for tenant's rights groups in the state.
Emotional Support Animals Are not the Same as Service Animals
In its decision, the court first pointed out the distinction between service animals and emotional support pets. The two do not have the same status in the eyes of the law. This suggests that the Court may have reached a different result if the animal was a service pet. The Court then also declared that housing laws do not require an accommodation when the measures that would be taken constitute a direct threat to an existing tenant. Here, given the severity of the tenant's allergy, the emotional support animal was considered a direct threat to her health and safety.
The Court looked at the physical well-being of one of the tenants and the mental health well-being of the other tenant and decided that the physical well-being did not have to be subjugated to the well-being of the other tenant. In balancing the needs of the two tenants, the landlord was obligated to consider the rights of the existing tenant as opposed to just factoring in accommodations needed for a new tenant. Here, the tenant with an already signed lease had the right of quiet enjoyment to the property for which she was paying which came first.
Of course, had the tenant with an emotional support animal been present in the building first, the Court may have reached a different result. While disability rights advocates are viewing this as a major loss, the Court takes pains to deny that it is sending the message that is being taken from the case. This may simply just be a case of a landlord being stuck between a rock and a hard place and losing either way.
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