Iowa Supreme Court sides with first-in-time tenant in conflict between pet allergy and emotional support animal

by Matt McGuire | August 4, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court held that a tenant with a dog allergy may maintain civil claims for damages against their landlord arising from the landlord’s waiver of their no-pets policy for a neighboring tenant’s emotional support animal.  In doing so, the Court emphasized the narrowness of its holding, characterizing its analysis as “highly fact-specific.”

Karen Cohen began leasing an apartment at a building in Iowa City owned by 2800-1 LLC in 2015.  Her lease agreement contained a provision banning the presence of pets in the building at any time.  Cohen is allergic to dogs, whose dander causes symptoms including congestion, sinus and throat swelling, and coughing.  About two months later, David Clark began leasing an apartment down the hall from Cohen’s.  In August 2016, Clark presented a letter from his psychiatrist requesting that his landlord allow Clark to own a dog as treatment for his chronic mental illness.

After seeking guidance from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission over the telephone, the landlord agreed to waive the no-pets policy in Clark’s lease.  To mitigate Cohen’s allergies, the landlord had Cohen and Clark use separate assigned stairwells and purchased an air purifier for Cohen’s apartment.  These measures could not prevent Cohen from experiencing allergy symptoms, which she attributed to the presence of Clark’s emotional support animal.

Cohen sued 2800-1 and Clark in small claims court, claiming that 2800-1 breached her lease and the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment by allowing Clark’s emotional support animal and that Clark violated her quiet enjoyment of her unit under Iowa’s landlord/tenant laws.  2800-1 LLC, the landlord, asserted as a defense that it was required to allow Clark’s emotional support animal as a reasonable accommodation under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.  The small claims court dismissed Cohen’s claims, and upon appeal the district court affirmed.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Christensen, joined by Justices Waterman, Mansfield, and McDermott, held that the landlord’s waiver of its no-pets policy was not a reasonable accommodation under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and that it could not assert a good-faith defense to Cohen’s contract claims resulting from following the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s advice.  Because this case involved a situation where the landlord’s accommodation to Clark allegedly constituted a direct threat to Cohen, the Court found that whether the landlord’s accommodation was reasonable required a balancing of the potential harms to each tenant.  Observing that “it’s clear that Cohen and Clark cannot satisfactorily coexist in the same apartment building,” the Court noted that the landlord had other buildings with vacant units that did allow pets and held that “being first in time tips the balance in Cohen’s favor.”

Writing for himself in dissent, Justice Appel argued that the Court improvidently granted discretionary review over the case.  While the landlord urged the Court to uphold the district court’s opinion dismissing Cohen’s claims, it also urged the Court to abandon what it believed to be the current law that emotional support animals are per se reasonable accommodations.  In other words, both Cohen and the landlord argued that the Court should adopt a rule that would allow landlords to deny tenants’ requests to waive no-pets provisions in leases to accommodate emotional support animals.  Appel argued that Cohen and the landlord “are joining forces to seek to persuade this Court” to adopt an approach to reasonable accommodation that disfavors emotional support animals, depriving the Court of the typical adversarial posture on appeal.

Writing for himself and Justice Oxley, Justice McDonald sharply critiqued the majority’s opinion.  McDonald criticized the majority’s opinion as contrary to federal, state, and municipal fair housing laws and holds that “a housing provider is now required to deny a disabled person, including a blind person, access to housing whenever another tenant might experience head-cold symptoms in response to the assistance animal when the other tenant entered into a lease agreement prior in time.”

McDonald compared the landlord to the fabled Odysseus and his crew, navigating a treacherous course in light of its tenants’ competing demands:

Port side was Scylla, a six-headed monster of federal, state, and municipal housing laws.  Starboard side was Charybdis, the whirlpool of Cohen’s common law rights.  The majority holds a landlord must sail directly toward one or the other: the landlord can refuse the accommodation and be eaten by enforcement actions and discrimination lawsuits brought by federal authorities, state authorities, municipal authorities, and disabled persons; or the landlord can grant the accommodation and drown in absolute liability to all tenants injured by the landlord’s waiver of the no-pets provision.

McDonald argued that the landlord reasonably accommodated Clark’s disability by allowing an emotional support animal because under “well established” federal, state, and municipal fair housing law, “[t]he waiver of a no-pets provision is per se a reasonable accommodation,” and because Cohen failed to show that her “cold-like” symptoms constituted a substantial harm to her held.  In the dissent’s view, the landlord “can successfully navigate the strait by acting in good faith” and should not be liable to Cohen under the circumstances.

It remains to be seen what impact the majority’s opinion will have on the reasonable-accommodation analysis in other scenarios.  In pointed disagreement with the dissent, the Court was quite careful to note that under its analysis, when the animal at issue is a service animal for a visually disabled person, the result may well be different.


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