GA apartment pays renter in case over emotional support dog

A man lived with his emotional support dog at a Georgia apartment complex for over a year before management gave him an “unauthorized pet” notice and tried to kick him out, according to federal court filings.

Now the property owner and management company owe his family $35,000.

Federal prosecutors reached a deal with property owner Johns Creek LLC and its management company, Sentinel Real Estate Inc., to settle allegations they discriminated against the renter in violation of the Fair Housing Act by ignoring his request to let the emotional support animal live with him and failing to renew his lease, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia said in a Jan. 21 news release.

The renter died before the case was resolved, prosecutors said, meaning the money will go to his estate.

“People with disabilities who need assistance animals to support them with daily activities should be allowed to keep these animals in their homes,” U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine said in the release. “A person who needs the continuous support of an emotional support animal should not have to face continuous obstacles to simply keep their pet at home.”

A representative for Sentinel and a lawyer representing the defendants did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on Tuesday, Jan. 25.

Representatives for Johns Creek could not be reached for comment.

According to the settlement agreement, the renter moved with his emotional support dog into an apartment at 11000 Lakefield Place in Johns Creek, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, in April 2017. The address belongs to The Oaks at Johns Creek, a 264-unit apartment complex.

The renter first received notice in August 2018 about an unauthorized pet on the premises, which prosecutors said he used as an emotional support animal to cope with a “mental health disability that limited his daily activities.”

There is a difference between emotional support animals and service dogs that are trained to perform tasks for someone with a disability — such as a guide dog or seizure response dog, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. Emotional support animals are akin to therapy animals that “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias.”

The renter’s lease agreement didn’t allow dogs, court documents state, and he was put on notice regarding the pet in August 2018. He reportedly gave management a copy of his dog’s identification card under the Service Dog National Registry in response. He also followed up in October that year with a note from his doctor regarding the dog’s status as an emotional support animal.

But management never responded, prosecutors said.

Instead, they reportedly waited until his lease was about to expire in March 2019 and told him it would not be renewed. Court filings state they gave him until the end of April to vacate the apartment.

“The Complainant did not want to move from his residence, and he sent multiple letters from several doctors to be able to renew his lease with his requested reasonable accommodation,” prosecutors said in the settlement agreement.

The property owner and management company eventually agreed to sign a new lease with him that included an animal addendum. But the government said their previous actions violated the Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination against renters and homeowners based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex and disability.

The act specifically requires housing providers grant a reasonable request for accommodation regarding service and emotional support animals when there is proof of a disability and other qualifying factors are met.

Prosecutors said the property owner and management company’s actions caused the renter “emotional distress, inconvenience and frustration,” prompting him to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The agency subsequently determined there was reason to believe violations of the Fair Housing Act had occurred and issued a charge of discrimination in January 2021.

The Justice Department never filed a civil lawsuit against the property owner and management company, both of which denied violating the Fair Housing Act in the settlement agreement.

As part of the agreement, the companies agreed to adopt a reasonable accommodation policy that allows tenants to have assistance animals, to train staff as to how to handle those applications and to submit regular compliance reports. The apartment complex’s website now describes it as a “modern, pet-friendly apartment community.”

Hayley Fowler is a reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking and real-time news across North and South Carolina. She has a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and previously worked as a legal reporter in New York City before joining the Observer in 2019.

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