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Lawsuit: Irvine Co. refused would-be tenant with emotional-support dogs

The Irvine Co. discriminated against a prospective tenant when it refused rent an apartment to her and the two dogs she needs for emotional support, according to allegations in a lawsuit filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The woman’s dogs help treat her depression and attention deficit disorder, which are recognized as disabilities, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed July 14 in Orange County Superior Court.

When she applied to rent an apartment at Los Olivos Apartment Homes in Irvine two years ago, she was denied when a manager asked whether her pets were “service dogs,” the department alleges.

Service animals perform specific tasks for the disabled — as guide dogs for the deaf and blind, for instance — while emotional support animals do not, explained Ann Menasche, an attorney with Disability Rights California.

“An emotional support animal purely loves you, and that’s it,” she said. “They’re not trained to do anything.”

But when it comes to housing laws, landlords are required to accommodate either kind of animal in most situations, Menasche said.

Service animals have additional protections in public places and at businesses.

The woman and her boyfriend, who are not plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were originally told they could move in with their dogs without paying a pet deposit, according to the lawsuit, but that changed when a manager requested documentation showing a medical need for the animals.

"[The manager] asked them what types of tasks their ‘service dogs’ were able to perform, and [said] that if the dogs did not perform tasks, [the prospective renters] would not be permitted to move into the complex with the dogs,” according to court documents.

The fair housing department wrote that the dogs help their owner cope with symptoms such as panic attacks and that when the Irvine Co. asked for documentation showing that the woman needs them, she gave them a letter recommending that she use an emotional-support animal.

Her application was still denied, according to court documents.

The woman got the letter through online and over-the-phone consultations with a counselor in Colorado, Stanford Sutherland, the department’s filing states.

The Irvine Co., which is based in Newport Beach and is one of the county’s largest landlords, had a policy to deny tenants who went online to get recommendations for emotional support animals, the department alleges.

The prospective renter “at the time ... was not aware that providers such as Mr. Sutherland who practice online and over the telephone are considered unreliable and suspect by housing providers and others who receive letters from them,” according to the lawsuit.

The fair housing department asserts that Sutherland, who is not licensed in California, could be violating the state’s licensing requirements and might be taking advantage of disabled people by charging for services like providing emotional support dog recommendations.

Sutherland did not respond to a voice mail left Thursday with a counseling company that lists him as the founder.

Menasche said a recommendation from a mental-health professional is typically all that’s legally needed before a landlord must accommodate a support animal, even if that letter was obtained remotely.

“It really would depend on the specifics, whether that person has done enough of an interview to make that decision,” she said.

Nevertheless, the lawsuit says, the would-be renter’s psychiatrist in California agrees that the emotional support dogs help her.

She was allegedly still turned away from the apartment after she offered to pay the typical pet deposit for her dogs.

A manager said her dogs — which weigh 46 and 49 pounds — exceeded the complex’s 20-pound weight limit, according to the lawsuit, which contends the apartment complex’s website listed a 50-pound weight limit for pets.

An Irvine Co. spokesman said the organization does not comment on active litigation.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.


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