Former Paterson Tenant Gets $20K Settlement After Facing Eviction Over Grieving Daughter’s Support Dog

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights announced today that a North Jersey housing cooperative and its property management contractor will pay a former tenant $20,000 to resolve allegations they unlawfully tried to evict her and her daughter over an emotional support dog who aided the daughter following her father’s death.

The Brooks-Sloate Terrace Cooperative Association of Paterson and its property management contractor – Colonial Mutual Housing Corp. -- must also develop and distribute a written anti-discrimination policy for the cooperative. Among other things, the policy must contain clear protocols for requesting an exception to the cooperative’s “no pets” policy for emotional support animals.

The respondents also must release all claims they may have against Spence for rent arrears, pet fines, legal fees, property damage, etc., and reinstate Spence to the cooperative’s active waiting list for individuals and families who have applied to become a shareholder/owner of a housing unit at the development.

The emotional support dog at issue was a gift to Spence’s daughter, and was described in a letter from her treating physician as therapeutic in addressing the girl’s conduct disorder, which the physician said had been exacerbated by the death of her father. Despite Spence’s explanations and the letter from the daughter’s physician, the Brooks-Sloate Board of Directors cited Spence for violating the cooperative’s no-pets rule, ordered her to get rid of the dog and, when she failed to do so, initiated eviction proceedings against her in state Superior Court. Among other assertions, the Brooks-Sloate board dismissed Spence’s claims that the dog was therapeutic for her daughter as a “pretense,” and observed that the animal had “received no specialized training.”

“This case should serve as a message to landlords -- as well as the governing boards of condominiums and co-ops across the state – that they need to know the law and proceed with deliberation when confronted with a request for such an accommodation,” said Attorney General Grewal.  “The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the federal Fair Housing Act were created, among other reasons, to protect the rights of people with disabilities – including those who legitimately need service dogs and emotional support animals. We are committed to upholding the law, and to holding accountable those who fail to follow it.”

“There is no requirement under the LAD that emotional support animals receive specialized training,” said Director Wainer Apter. “And a housing provider cannot second guess a treating physician’s determination that an emotional support animal is necessary to allow a resident with a disability an equal opportunity to enjoy her home. In such a case, a housing provider must grant the accommodation unless doing so would be an undue burden on its operations.”

Officials say Brooks-Sloate is a cooperative development in Paterson consisting of 200 housing units owned by shareholders of the cooperative, and 40 rental units owned by the cooperative. Colonial Mutual Housing Corporation is a property management company that administers the rental units.

According to a Finding of Probable Cause issued by the Division, the incident that led to Spence’s filing of a complaint against Brooks-Sloate and Colonial Mutual began when Colonial personnel entered the three-bedroom apartment Spence shared with her daughter and son on November 11, 2015. During what Colonial characterized as routine pest control service, a Colonial employee observed the emotional support dog in one of the bedrooms. Spence was issued a Notice of Violation the next day, and given five days to remove the dog.

According to authorities, Spence met soon after with two members of the Brooks-Sloate board and their attorney, and explained that the dog was helping her then-13-year-old daughter, who had been suffering from depression over the death of her father. Spence followed up with a letter asking to meet with the full board to discuss her situation. In return, Spence received a letter from the Brooks-Sloate board’s attorney directing her to vacate the premises by Dec. 21, 2015 and imposing a fine of $75 per day “as long as the dog is on the premises.”

Officials say Spence subsequently presented the Brooks-Sloate board with a letter from her daughter’s physician that explained her daughter’s condition and the dog’s therapeutic necessity. The physician wrote in part that, “Pet therapy is a medical treatment that is recommended for her (Spence’s daughter) and her ability to heal.”

In its Finding Probable Cause, the Division noted that the Respondents were “mistaken” in suggesting their eviction attempt was legal because Spence’s dog had received no specialized training.

The FPC pointed to the position of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that “emotional support animals provide very private functions for persons with mental and emotional disabilities. Specifically, emotional support animals, by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”

In addition, the FPC explained, neither Brooks-Sloate nor Colonial Mutual had ever provided evidence suggesting the dog’s continued presence in Spence’s apartment would create an undue burden on its operation.

The FPC also observed that there was no evidence Brooks-Sloate or Colonial Mutual had engaged in a “reasonable accommodation analysis” or “fact sensitive examination,” of Spence’s request for an accommodation from the “no pets” policy, which are required under the LAD.