Reversal: Landlord didn’t have enough info to consider emotional support cat

A woman evicted from her apartment because of her emotional support cat faced a reversal in favor of her landlord Monday after the Indiana Court of Appeals determined the woman did not provide enough information to allow the landlord to review her request for the animal.

As a tenant in a Muncie apartment leased from Furbee Properties LLC, Shelley Linder agreed “[n]ot [to] allow dogs, cats or other animals or pets on the premises.” If she violated the agreement, Linder faced a $500 fine and eviction.

Five months after moving in, however, Linder asked Furbee if she could have an emotional support animal. Her request included a letter from a marriage and family therapist recommending that such an animal would “significantly help in alleviating Shelley’s symptoms” stemming from her undisclosed disability. When asked for more information about her disability, Linder did not provide it or sign a consent form for Furbee to speak with her therapist.

After it took no action on her request for an emotional support animal, Linder brought a cat into her apartment. Furbee quickly charged Linder for the animal and gave her one week to remove it, but the cat was still there when Linder was evicted from the apartment in December 2017.

The Indiana Civil Rights Commission, on behalf of Linder, filed a complaint against Furbee, alleging “discrimination on the basis of disability and handicap in violation of the Indiana Fair Housing Act, IC 22-9.5-1-1 et seq.,” as well as a failure to give Linder a reasonable accommodation.

The Delaware Circuit Court denied summary judgment to Furbee, finding that its questions, “(such as how many times Tenant and (the therapist) met, how long the visits were, and whether a physical examination occurred) ‘exceeded the reasonable inquiry to which [it was] entitled.’”

In an interlocutory appeal, Furbee argued the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed Monday and reversed in its favor.

“Here, the designated evidence shows that (the therapist’s) letter — the only documentation that Tenant gave Landlord to support her request for an emotional-support animal — provides that Tenant ‘meets the definition of disability’; however, it identifies no disability,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the unanimous appellate panel. “(The) letter also provides that Tenant ‘has certain limitations regarding coping with symptoms that stem from her disability.’ Again, the letter identifies no limitations or symptoms of the ‘disability.’ Landlord, at the very least, was entitled to know Tenant’s disability and disability-related need for the animal.”

To support its finding that Furbee was justified in trying to open a dialogue with Linder and requesting more information from her, the appellate court noted differences between Linder’s case and that in Bhogaita v. Altamonte Heights Condo. Ass’n, Inc., 765 F.3d 1277, 1286 n.3 (11th Cir. 2014).

“In Bhogaita, the condominium association knew the homeowner’s disability and disability-related need for the animal but nevertheless requested more information from the homeowner,” Vaidik wrote. “Here, however, Landlord did not know Tenant’s disability or disability-related need for the animal when it requested additional information. This difference between the cases is critical.”

“… Here, Tenant did not respond at all to Landlord, causing a breakdown in the process. Without information about Tenant’s disability and disability-related need for the animal, Landlord could not meaningfully review Tenant’s request for an emotional-support animal. We therefore reverse the trial court and remand with instructions for the court to enter summary judgment in favor of Landlord,” the appellate panel concluded.

The case is Douglas Furbee, Furbee Properties, LLC, Furbee Properties I, LLC v. Gregory L. Wilson, Sr. in his Official Capacity as Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and Shelley Linder, 19A-PL-1756.

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