Justice Department sues KSU for violating Fair Housing Act

Celia Fernandez

The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Kent State University, several university officials and its board of trustees for violating the Fair Housing Act because of discrimination against students with disabilities in student housing.

The Fair Housing Act, adopted in 1968 and amended in 1988, makes it unlawful to refuse to make reasonable housing accommodations because of a resident’s disability, race, color, national origin, religion, sex or familial status, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) website.

The university and its employees refused to allow students with psychological or emotional disabilities to have assistance animals in university housing, according to the lawsuit, filed Monday, Sept. 8, in the U.S. District Court in Cleveland.

Those named in the lawsuit besides the university and its Board of Trustees are the following:  Jill Church; associate director of Residence Service at the time, Brian Hellwig; assistant director of residential safety and security, Amy Quillin; associate director of student accessibility services and Betsy Joseph; director of residence services at the time.

Church, Hellwig, Quillin and Joseph are not allowed to talk to the media at this time, said university spokesperson Eric Mansfield via email.

“Kent State is aware of the charges stemming from claims made several years ago,” according to a press release from the university on Monday. “Helping our students succeed remains a top priority, and we look forward to discussing the facts of this case at the appropriate time.”

Complaint with the FHAA

The lawsuit comes after a student, Jacqueline Luke, filed a complaint with the Fair Housing Advocates Association (FHAA) for not being allowed by Residence Services and Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to have a therapy dog to alleviate her anxiety attacks because the dog wasn’t trained as a service animal.

“I was stunned that the office that helps people with disabilities would lead the charge to deny a person with a disability their rights,” said Vincent B. Curry, executive director of the FHAA. “That was very disturbing to me.”

Luke was living in the university-owned Allerton Apartments at the time of her complaint in 2010.

Luke did not respond to requests for comment. 

“Just the fact she knows there’s a dog at home that she can go to is something that she can have to give her a feeling of security,” said Lorre Leon Mendelson, a service dog expert and disability activist volunteer with the Coalition and Disability Law and Advoc

acy Center. “It can help her mental health just to know there is someone waiting at home.”

Allerton Apartments has a written pet policy, which states: “Due to maintenance and sanitation problems that pets create, they are not permitted at Allerton. The only exception to this is fish.”

The FHAA conducted an investigation after receiving the complaint and filed an administrative complaint with HUD.

“When a charge is issued by HUD it is part of the process that the Justice Department gets involved,” Curry said. “The DOJ is taking the lead and they are the ones if the case does not settle will be presenting our side [Ms. Luke and the FHAA].”

The suit also charges that Kent State treats students with psychological and emotional disabilities who need to live with assistance animals less favorably than students in a similar situation with other types of disabilities such as mobility disabilities or vision impairments, according to a press release from the Justice Department.

“Many people with disabilities rely on therapy animals to enhance their quality of life,” said Gustavo Velasquez, HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity. “HUD and the Department of Justice will continue to work together to take action whenever the nation’s fair housing laws are violated.”

According to a notice established by HUD last year, persons with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation for any assistance animal, including an emotional support dog under both the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. 

“If she requested to have the animal there, as an emotional support dog, by law that is allowed, the university broke the law,” Mendelson said. “They didn’t have the authority to tell her no.” 

Contact Celia Fernandez at [email protected].