University Accused of Housing Bias

Nebraska-Kearney faces federal discrimination charges -- which it disputes -- after barring student from bringing therapy dog with her to live in university-owned apartment.
October 12, 2011

A federal agency charged the University of Nebraska at Kearney with discriminating against a disabled student by barring her from bringing her therapy dog to live with her in a university-owned apartment.

But university officials said they are not going to back down without a fight.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development charged the university and five employees with violating the Fair Housing Act, which provides protections for disabled students, among other things. According to the suit, the student required her 4 lb. miniature pinscher, named Butch, to help her cope with depression and anxiety.

At the beginning of the last academic year, the student, who is not named in the suit, was seeking an exception to the university’s policy that bans any type of animal other than fish to live in university housing.

The department alleges that the university denied repeated “reasonable” requests for an exception to the no-pet policy, and that Kearney officials overstepped their legal bounds by inquiring about the student’s medical status beyond what the law allows. The suit asserts that the university’s “psychological documentation guidelines” require information “beyond what is needed to review a request for reasonable accommodation in housing under the FHA.... It improperly requests detailed information about the student’s treatment, limitations and medications,” the suit reads.

University officials, however, dispute the charges. “UNK is denying the allegations and we are going to be pursuing the charges in federal court,” said Curt Carlson, vice chancellor for university relations at the university.

Carlson said he could not give specific reasons why the dog was not allowed in the university-owned building. He did say that a federal agency has never levied this type of charge at the university before. According to the suit, the university denied the student's request because she did not follow its documentation protocol; the animal was deemed a pet rather than a therapy dog.

According to the suit, the university ultimately denied the student's exception request, saying that she could either move off-campus with the dog or stay on campus without the dog.

The suit also states that during the investigation of this incident, the department uncovered another, similar case of a therapy dog request that was denied by the university.

Other institutions have faced these types of charges in the past; for example, there was a 2009 suit against Millikin University for refusing to allow a blind student with epilepsy have a trained service dog live with her in her dorm room. The case was settled in January, with the university paying nearly $4,500 to the student and adding language in all of its written materials explaining that housing discrimination against students with disabilities is illegal.

The Nebraska-Kearney student was diagnosed with depression in 2008 and was taking anti-anxiety medication, according to the housing agency's filings. By mid-October 2010, the student had withdrawn from the university and moved home with her mother, the suit states.

“When she left UNK, [the student] gave up her position on UNK’s cheer squad and lost the opportunity to experience university housing and complete her academic goals. The negative experience drastically altered the direction of [the student’s] life, and has caused her to doubt if she could ever again attend a traditional four-year university,” the suit reads.

The charges will be heard in federal district court but a court date has yet to be announced. If the university loses the case, it could be forced to pay any damages and up to $16,000 as a penalty, according to the suit.


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