Keywords: ADA, FHAA, reasonable modification, accommodation, service animal
Ingrid Anderson on behalf of her daughter C.A. filed suit against the city alleging violations of the ADA and FHAA after the city prohibited the family from keeping a miniature horse which Anderson identified as a service animal on their property. C.A. has multiple disabilities and uses a miniature horse to help with therapy and navigation.
The District Court initially ruled in favor of the city and dismissed all the charges brought by Anderson. However, here the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part, finding for Anderson. The court thoroughly discussed what qualifies as a service animal for purposes of reasonable modifications and accommodations under the ADA and FHAA in the residential context.
In 2010, at the behest of her physician, C.A. the minor daughter of plaintiff Ingrid Anderson, began working with a miniature horse, identified as a service animal, to help curb the effects of her multiple disabilities and specifically to help C.A play in and navigate the uneven surface of her backyard. In the following months, Anderson housed two miniature horses in her backyard and was repeatedly brought in front of the local zoning board and city council concerning community complaints about the foul odor of horse manure, the allegedly decreasing property values due to the presence of the horses, and the stipulated invalidity of the service animals.
Upon being ordered to remove one of the horses, Anderson informed Community Development Director and Zoning Administrator Daniel Johnson that both animals served as service animals for her daughter. He argued that the child didn’t need both horses to act as service animals. Anderson appealed Johnson’s order to the city council and in August 2012 the city council issued a decision stating that the horses “are clearly not service animals,” again ordering Anderson to remove one of the horses from her property. Following the decision, Anderson moved to a new residence and replaced the two prior horses with the one at issue in this case, Elle. Upon acquiring Elle in 2012 to serve as a service animal for her daughter, Anderson took multiple classes to learn how to train Elle to help with her daughter’s therapy.
In January of 2013, the city council passed an ordinance forbidding the housing of farm animals at city residences. The ordinance specifically identified horses as among the prohibited farm animals. Anderson was informed that the ordinance was to go into effect in February and if Elle was still on the premises at that time Anderson would be cited for a violation. When an officer witnessed the horse still present on the property in February, he asked Anderson to remove it and she did temporarily.
However, the horse was again observed on the property twice in July and Anderson received $150.00 citations for both instances. Later that year Anderson was tried on both citations and her defense at the trial centered on Elle’s status as a service animal and a mandated modification for her daughter C.A. under Title II of the ADA and the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA). Relying on Elle’s status as a service animal, Anderson moved for summary judgment on the citations. The municipal court denied the motion and she was convicted on both counts.
Anderson then filed suit against the city in federal district court. The suit alleged that by denying Anderson and her daughter the right to keep Elle at their home, the city violated their rights under the ADA and the FHAA. The suit further claimed that by implementing the ordinance, the city discriminated against C.A. in violation of the ADA and FHAA. Such an ordinance, Anderson argued had a disparate impact on C.A. and other individuals with disabilities. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the city. Plaintiff appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Anderson relied on regulations enforcing the ADA which state that a public entity must make “reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability.” Such a modification is also conditioned on the horse meeting certain assessment factors. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals emphasized that in order to qualify as a reasonable modification under the regulations, a horse must have training to help a person with a disability with specific, disability-related tasks and must be fully trained at the time in question (as opposed to an animal in training). The city argued that Elle did not qualify because Elle did not assist C.A. in daily activities (at school, in the house), rather only while navigating, playing, and receiving therapy in the backyard. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, stating that many service animals serve specialized functions or are only needed at particular times. According to the court, C.A.’s limited need of Elle did not preclude her from a reasonable modification.
Further, the city argued that Elle’s training was not sufficient to qualify her as a service animal since Anderson had no certification in horse training. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument as well, noting that the ADA makes no particular stipulations as to how a service animal must be trained; it simply requires that it be trained to help a person with a disability perform specific tasks.
In determining the validity of Elle as a reasonable modification, both the District Court and the Court of Appeals consulted four assessment factors including: (i) The type, size, and weight of the miniature horse and whether the facility can accommodate these features; (ii) Whether the handler has sufficient control of the miniature horse; (iii) Whether the miniature horse is housebroken; and (iv) Whether the miniature horse's presence in a specific facility compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation. The District Court in its evaluation determined that these factors worked against Anderson’s claim specifically citing: 1. Anderson’s small property being unconducive to keeping and caring for a miniature horse, 2. Community member’s complaints alleging compromised health, safety, and sanitation standards, and 3. Anderson’s failure to train the animal to be housebroken or to consistently follow her commands
The Court of Appeals was not persuaded by this logic and determined that as the horse was smaller than the average miniature horse, the small lot size was sufficient. Further, the court determined there was no reason for the horse to be housebroken as it lived and worked outdoors. The court conceded though that there were disputed issues of fact as to the health and safety concerns as well as to the horse’s training. Citing the disputes of fact, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s summary judgment decision regarding the horse’s status as a service animal and the reasonable modification claim.
The Court of Appeals explained that in order to prove intentional discrimination and sustain this claim under the ADA, Anderson on behalf of C.A. must demonstrate (1) she has a disability; (2) she is otherwise qualified; and (3) she was being excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under the program because of her disability. According to the Court of Appeals, in order to meet the third prong of the test, “the plaintiff must show that the defendant took action because of the plaintiff's disability.” In other words, Anderson must prove that feelings towards or about people with disabilities played a significant role in the city’s decision to implement the ordinance. In light of the city’s arguments that it passed the ordinance in response to citizen complaints regarding the unsanitary conditions and smell on plaintiff’s property coupled with Anderson’s inability to offer evidence to the contrary, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling of summary judgment.
The Court of Appeals laid out the relevant provision of the FHAA, reiterating that it is unlawful to “discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling, because of a handicap." Under the FHAA dwelling refers to any “building, structure, or portion thereof which is occupied as, or designed or intended for occupancy as, a residence by one or more families.”
The court explained the three theories of relief under the FHAA: 1. Failure to make reasonable accommodations, 2. Disparate Treatment, and 3. Disparate Impact.
Initially, in order to prove a reasonable accommodation claim, it must be found that such an accommodation is necessary to afford an individual an equal opportunity to enjoy their property as compared to their peers without disabilities. The accommodation must also be deemed reasonable. The Court of Appeals dismissed the city and District Court’s reasoning for summary judgment. Initially, the District Court found that a horse was not necessary for C.A. to have the equal opportunity to enjoy her home because she could go to therapy outside her home and work with therapy horses there. However, the court pointed out that going outside the home as an alternative entirely defeated the FHAA’s mandate of full enjoyment of one’s own dwelling.
The city also argued that C.A. was able to move freely about the interior of her house unassisted and thus did not need the accommodation for full enjoyment. However the Court of Appeals noted that the FHAA requires full enjoyment of the entire property including the backyard, just as a peer without a disability would have. The Court of Appeals determined that the equal opportunity element of plaintiff’s claim was met. However, according to the Court of Appeals, the reasonableness prong required that the burden on the city and the benefit to the plaintiff be evaluated simultaneously and balanced (e.g., smell and health concerns to community v. benefit to C.A.). The court said there were still questions of fact to be determined with regard to reasonableness. Therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s determination of summary judgment on plaintiff’s reasonable accommodation claim under the FHAA and found in favor of the plaintiff.
A disparate treatment claim under the FHAA much like an intentional discrimination claim under the ADA requires proof that the city acted the way it did because of animus towards plaintiff’s daughter and her daughter’s disability status. Consequently, much like the ADA intentional discrimination claim, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s granting of summary judgment due to a lack of evidence of such animus.
In order to survive summary judgment on a disparate impact claim, the Court of Appeals explained that Anderson must prove that the city’s actions "caused handicapped individuals to suffer disproportionately more than other individuals." In that regard, even though the city actively contested Elle’s particular service animal status and thus did not extend protection to her, the ordinance generally exempts those animals it recognizes as service animals. Therefore, the court stated “Ordinance 2013-1 has less of an impact on disabled individuals who rely on the assistance of miniature horses or other animals than it does on the general population.” Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision of summary judgment on the matter of Anderson’s disparate impact claim.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that there was not enough evidence of animus to sustain Anderson’s claims of intentional discrimination, disparate treatment, or disparate impact and thus affirmed summary judgment on those claims.
However, the Court of Appeals found in Anderson’s favor regarding the reasonable accommodation and modification claims. The court determined that there were still disputes of fact that needed to be settled regarding Elle’s status and reasonableness as a service animal for C.A. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s summary judgment ruling and remanded the case back to the District Court to address the reasonable modification and accommodation claims in a manner consistent with this opinion.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals applied a flexible reading of the law in determining whether or not an animal qualifies as a service animal. However, the court maintained a strict and demanding standard for ADA intentional discrimination claims and disparate impact or disparate treatment claims brought under the FHAA.