ESA’s and Service animals are still confusing, even after the Iowa Supreme Court rules!

If you are in any part of the real estate work, whether it’s selling or managing property, you are quite aware of Emotional and Service Animals and how they are protected by the Fair Housing Authorities and American Disability Acts. You may not discriminate against an owner who has either one of those animals. In fact, they are not even considered “pets”, they are tools to assist their owners/handlers. It is against the law to not allow them in your units or buildings.

Is this completely clear? I used to think so.

According to an Iowa Supreme Court ruling June 30th, 2020, “An Iowa City tenant with a severe allergy to pet dander will receive damages of one month’s rent from a landlord who allowed another tenant to have an emotional support dog in a building with a no-pet policy, according to an Iowa Supreme Court.”

Now the ruling stated the landlord SHOULD NOT have allowed the emotional support animal into the building since the building had a “NO-PET” policy.

Remember, service or therapy animals ARE NOT PETS.

According to Iowa Code 216C, Landlords will have to waive lease restrictions or additional payment (pet rent or deposit) for a tenant who has a service or assistance animals.

A landlord who “knowingly” denies or interferes with the rights of a person with a disability is guilty of a simple misdemeanor which is punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a find of $65 to $625 or both.

The tenant who was allergic was already living in the unit under her understanding it was a “No-Pet” building and at that time, it was.

The 2nd tenant moved in and shortly thereafter, received a prescription for an assistance animal.

The landlord contacted the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to get direction in this dilemma and was told to accommodate both tenants.

To shorten the story and to get to my point, the case ended up in a Iowa Supreme Court decision against the landlord, Chief Justice Susan Christensen, who wrote for the majority, said the two tenants — Karen Cohen, who had severe allergies, and David Clark, who had the dog — had the landlord in a “pickle” trying to accommodate both of them. However, the landlord, who isn’t identified by name in the ruling, should have denied the dog request because Cohen lived there first and the dog posed a direct threat to her health.

HOWEVER, as per Iowa Code 216C, if that was the case would the landlord have risked violating the Iowa Code 216C with Fair Housing? What then?

According to the Iowa Supreme Court, each case is different and will lead with different outcomes.

Indeed, Assistance and Emotional Animals are a headache for landlords, but at least, the landlord this time only needs to award the tenant one month’s rent.

But it makes dealing with ESA’s and Service Animals in the future even more cautious.

Below are the oral arguments of the Supreme Court:

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