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Court Agrees That Denial of Emotional Support Dog Constituted Discrimination, but Reduces Damages

Coop and condo boards and landlords have become familiar in recent years with legal requirements governing requests for reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities, including those who seek to have a service or support animal as an accommodation.  The most recent court decision addressing this area of the law is Matter of Mutual Apartments, Inc. v. New York City Commission on Human Rights, 2022 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2031, 2022 N.Y. Slip Op. 2122 (2d Dep’t Mar. 30, 2022). 

A mother and daughter have resided together in a cooperative apartment for many years.  The proprietary lease prohibits tenants from having dogs, but the tenants requested permission to have a dog for emotional support in connection with their mental health disabilities.  After receiving this reasonable accommodation request, the cooperative and its managing agent brought a proceeding seeking to evict the tenants for violating the no-dog rule.  The tenants then filed a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, asserting that they had been discriminated against because of their disabilities.  The Commission awarded the tenants compensatory damages of $40,000 and $30,000 respectively, imposed a further civil penalty of $55,000, and directed that the cooperative and managing agent must allow the tenants to keep their dog.

The cooperative and managing agent challenged the Commission’s decision in court.  The court reaffirmed the legal standards for claims of housing discrimination, and emphasized that where the Human Rights Commission has resolved a complaint after an evidentiary hearing, the court will sustain the Commission’s decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence.  Here, “the Commission’s determination that the [cooperative and managing agent] unlawfully discriminated against the complainants on the basis of a mental health disability by refusing to allow them to keep their emotional support dog as a reasonable accommodation [was] supported by substantial evidence.”  However, finding the amounts awarded by the Commission to be excessive, the court reduced the damage awards to $20,000 and $15,000 respectively and the civil penalty to $30,000.