An Iowa landlord got caught in an impossible situation. He said “yes” to an emotional support dog, and that dog ended up bothering another tenant who had allergies. The allergic tenant sued because she rented the apartment with the understanding that no pets were allowed, and the court sided with her because she was there first. The case itself has an important lesson for landlords dealing with the conflicting needs of its tenants.
This has not been an easy dispute to resolve. The case worked its way to the Iowa Supreme court where Chief Justice Susan Christensen acknowledged that the landlord got himself into a “pickle” trying to satisfy the needs of both tenants. (1)
Tenants With Conflicting Medical Needs
The landlord had rented an apartment to Karen Cohen on November 11, 2015 for a lease period that ran from July 2016 to July 2017. Cohen has severe pet allergies, and signed the lease because it said that no pets were allowed in the apartment building. (2)
A few months later, the landlord rented an apartment to David Clark for the same lease period. His apartment was down the hall from Cohen’s. Clark’s lease also stated that there’s a no-pet policy and he didn’t have a pet when he signed the lease.
About a month after he moved in, he gave the landlord a letter from a psychiatrist saying that he has an “impairment in his ability to function” and an emotional support dog would help his health and wellbeing.
The property manager notified everyone in the building, asking if anyone had allergies. Cohen responded with details about the extent of her allergies. She said, her reaction to dog dander makes it feel like she has a constant cold with nasal congestion, swollen sinuses, and a lot of coughing. She’s even more allergic to cats and carries an epi pen in case there’s an accidental encounter with a cat.
Good Faith Effort to Accommodate Both Tenants
The property manager wasn’t sure how to address the problem at first, because emotional support animals are allowed under Fair Housing rules, so he contacted the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to get some informal advice. He told someone over the phone that he could move Clark to another apartment, but the person on the phone said that wouldn’t be a reasonable accommodation for Clark. The ICRC person said the landlord should try to reasonably accommodate both of them by addressing Cohen’s allergies and Clark’s right to have an emotional support pet.
The landlord followed that advice. He allowed the emotional support dog but tried to keep the two households separate by telling them to use separate stairways. The landlord also purchased an air purifier for Cohen. That wasn’t enough to keep her from having reactions however. She said, she still suffered allergy attacks and had to limit the amount of time she spent in her apartment to keep them under control.
About a year later, Cohen filed a complaint in small-claims court saying the landlord had breached the “no pets” clause in the lease and the quiet enjoyment of her apartment that she’s paying for. She also sued Clark saying he had also denied her the quiet enjoyment of her apartment. The landlord told the court that he was following the law by allowing the emotional support pet and had followed the advice of the Civil Rights Commission in accommodating both tenants.
The court determined that the landlord had done enough to accommodate Cohen, so her case was dismissed. There were various other appeals and court appearances over the course of a few years until the case reached the Iowa Supreme Court. It determined that even though there were merits on both sides of the case, the first-in-time factor “tipped the balance” in Cohen’s favor. She was there first, and the landlord should have given her needs priority, according to the ruling.
Takeaways for Landlords
So there are a few lessons here, actually. JD Supra published a review of the case by the Davis Brown Law Firm with details on the takeaways for landlords. (3) Here are a few of them:
- Cohen had signed the lease first and the presence of an ESA pet in the building would be a serious threat to her health. The takeaway here is landlords should consider this factor when there’s a conflict in the needs of two tenants.
- Cohen’s allergies were a medically documented disability that could be verified. Clark’s need for an emotional support pet was also medically documented, so both tenants had disabilities. The takeaway here is that landlords should verify medical necessity.
- A landlord’s attempt to get advice from the Civil Rights Commission may have been done in good faith, but that was unofficial advice that will probably not hold up in court. Davis Brown attorneys suggest that landlords seek legal counsel.
- In this case, it would’ve been reasonable to ask the tenant with the ESA request to move to another building that allows pets, or that would not have caused a problem with an allergic tenant.
- This process would likely not apply to a service animal. That would come with a different set of considerations, including whether the relocation of the tenant and dog would create a hardship because they had already learned the layout of the building or apartment. Again, the landlord may need to seek legal counsel.
In this case, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the landlord’s decision to accommodate the emotional support dog was not reasonable. It also granted Cohen’s demand for damages equal to one month’s rent.
(3) JD Supra Review