State sues apartment owners for evicting disabled tenants with companion animal

Wednesday, November 18, 2009
California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)

Elk Grove, CA – The California Department of Fair
Employment and Housing (DFEH) announced today
the $298,833 out-of-court settlement of a
lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court accusing the owners of Huntington
Villas Apartments of wrongly initiating
eviction proceedings against a disabled tenant because of
her companion animal. 

For more than ten years,
Michele Warner has endured unmanageable pain resulting from multiple spine,
muscular and nervous systems ailments.  As part of her treatment, on the
advice of her doctor, Ms. Warner obtained Nellie, a mixed Labrador Retriever and
German Shepherd whose companionship lessened the anxiety and depression caused
by her painful conditions. 
When she applied for a lease renewal, the owners’ leasing agent refused Ms.
Warner because Nellie exceeded a newly-imposed
weight limit for pets.  After Warner explained that
Nellie was a companion dog for medical therapy, not a pet, the agent insisted
on proof.  According to the complaint, after she produced a doctor’s
note certifying Nellie’s companionship was medically necessary,
the defendants terminated Warner’s
tenancy.  Forced to move to a series of temporary housing, and no longer
able to care for her companion animal, Ms. Warner had no choice but to
euthanize Nellie. 

 “It is imperative that
landlords reasonably accommodate tenants with disabilities so they can have
full use and enjoyment of their housing,” said DFEH Director Phyllis Cheng.
“Companion animals are not pets.  The Fair Employment and Housing Act
requires housing providers to modify pet policies so that individuals with
disabilities who need companion animals can have them.”

Before bringing her complaint
to the DFEH, Ms. Warner sought the assistance of the Fair Housing Council of
Orange County (FHCOC).  Using testers, FHCOC documented additional
instances of the leasing agents’ refusal to modify the pet policy to
accommodate individuals with disabilities who require a live-in companion or
service animal. 

The out-of-court settlement
also requires Huntington Villas Apartments to modify its pet policy to permit
tenants with disabilities to live with companion or service animals when
necessary, even if those animals exceed the weight limit.  In addition,
the defendants agreed to hire an expert to conduct fair housing training for
all managers and assistant managers.  In settling the case, the defendants
did not admit liability.

The mission of the DFEH is to
protect the people of California from unlawful discrimination in employment,
housing and public accommodations and from hate violence.  For more
information, visit the Department’s Web site at

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