By Kathleen Foody, The Associated Press
A Colorado housing authority accused of violating the federal rights of tenants with disabilities by charging a fee for companion animals has settled a lawsuit for nearly $1 million.
The agreement followed a three-year fight over the Meeker Housing Authority’s efforts to tighten restrictions on keeping pets at the northwestern Colorado property, a federally subsidized apartment building for families. Attorneys said the agency refused to make exceptions for two tenants whose cats and dog were recommended by doctors to cope with depression and anxiety.
“Housing is one of our basic needs, and when that’s taken away from people who do not have a safety net, there’s nowhere for them to go,” said Siddhartha Rathod, the tenants’ attorney.
Attorneys for the Meeker Housing Authority did not return messages seeking comment.
Colorado District Court Judge William J. Martinez ruled in February that the creation of a $300 fee and the denial of requests for an exception by the tenants with disabilities violated federal law preventing discrimination against people with disabilities. Other claims were set to be decided by a jury in early May until the parties began settlement talks.
Under the agreement, the plaintiffs will receive $950,000 from the Meeker Housing Authority. They previously settled with the town of Meeker for $50,000, attorneys said.
One of the affected tenants, 23-year-old A.J. White, has severe depression and often refused to get out of bed until he and his father adopted two cats named Genki and Haim.
A.J. White has held a job as a cashier for five years and graduated high school but medication can exacerbate his depression and anxiety, said his father, Lonnie White. The cats changed everything.
“The cats give him routine, give him purpose, give him happiness,” Lonnie White said. “When he’s feeling down, the first ones to the rescue are the cats. He feels like, ‘If they think I’m lovable, then I’m lovable.'”
The outcome of the tenants’ suit isn’t surprising, said Christopher Berry, a senior staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has said since 2013 that federal housing law requires landlords to accommodate tenants with disabilities who rely on service or emotional support animals, he said.
Another plaintiff in the suit, Megan McFadden, also had been diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety, including panic attacks. The mother of two found that her dog, Chewy, helped her cope with stress and lowered her feelings of depression and anxiety, according to the lawsuit.
McFadden moved out when building managers refused to grant her a lease extension if Chewy remained in the apartment, the suit said.
Lonnie White, who was the third plaintiff in the lawsuit against the housing authority, said he and his son were relieved by the settlement after years of preparing for a trial. The Whites moved after the pet policy took effect and pooled their incomes to afford rent.
Neither could imagine giving up the cats that had become members of their family, Lonnie White said.
“They’re more than pets,” he said.