Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 4, 2015

Sixth Circuit Holds Issue of Fact Existed as to Whether Requested Accommodation of Keeping Miniature Horse at Resident’s House Was Reasonable and Necessary to Afford an Equal Opportunity to Use and Enjoy Dwelling

At issue was whether Ingrid Anderson could keep a miniature horse at her house as a service animal for her disabled minor daughter, C.A. The daughter suffered from a number of disabilities that affected her ability to walk and balance independently, and the horse enabled her to play and get exercise in her backyard without assistance from an adult. In 2013, the City passed a municipal ordinance banning horses from residential property and then criminally prosecuted Anderson for violating it. Anderson’s defense was that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U .S.C. 12101, et seq., and the Fair Housing Amendments Act (“FHAA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq., both entitled her to keep the horse at her house as a service animal for C.A. Rejecting those arguments, the Hamilton County Municipal Court found Anderson guilty. Anderson then brought an action against the City in federal district court, arguing under the ADA and FHAA that the City intentionally discriminated against her because of C.A.’s disabilities, and that the City’s ordinance has had a disparate impact on C.A. and other disabled individuals, in violation of the FHAA. The district court granted summary judgment to the City, finding that Anderson’s claims were barred by claim and issue preclusion stemming from her Municipal Court conviction.

The City contended that both claim preclusion and issue preclusion barred the plaintiffs’ lawsuit because of: Anderson’s administrative appeal to the Blue Ash City Council in 2012, and her convictions for violating Ordinance 2013–1. Anderson’s administrative appeal to the Council dealt with two different miniature horses at a different location. These distinctions were significant because the ADA and FHAA regulations governing miniature horses call for a fact-specific inquiry into the characteristics of the particular animals in question, including their type, size, weight, and training, as well as the adequacy of the facilities where the horses are kept. Therefore, the court found that proceeding had no preclusive effect on this lawsuit. Similarly, the court found that Anderson’s convictions for violating Ordinance 2013–1 had no preclusive effect on her ADA and FHAA claims because the qualitative differences between the instant civil proceedings and her criminal trial in Municipal Court had different effects on her willingness and ability to litigate fully those issues in the prior proceeding.

As to the ADA claim, the court noted that other courts have typically found that to qualify for a reasonable modification, an animal must be specially trained to perform tasks directly related to a disability, contrasted with animals that have received only general training, provide only emotional support, or otherwise perform tasks not directly related to a disability. Here, Anderson testified that Ellie was trained to assist C.A. to overcome her mobility limitations by steadying her as she walks and helping her stand after she falls, tasks specifically listed by the ADA regulations as examples of ways that miniature horses can assist the disabled. Viewing all facts and drawing all reasonable inferences in Anderson’s favor, and given the “highly fact-specific” nature of the reasonableness inquiry, the court concluded that there were disputed issues of material fact as to the reasonableness of Anderson’s requested modification. However, even if the City’s procedures for compliance with federal regulations had a negative impact on its disabled citizens generally, this was insufficient by itself to support the inference that the City’s actions were motivated by C.A.’s disability because “acts and omissions which have a disparate impact on disabled persons in general are not specific acts of intentional discrimination against the plaintiff in particular.” Thus, the intentional discrimination claim and disparate treatment claim were dismissed.

Under the FHAA, plaintiff contended that by refusing to permit her to keep Ellie at her dwelling the City failed to make a reasonable accommodation. The fact that the horse allowed C.A. to play independently and exercise in her backyard and that, without the horse, C.A. could not do so for any significant length of time, and would effectively be denied the equal opportunity to play in her own backyard as non-disabled children can, was sufficient to satisfy the equal opportunity and necessity elements. The court also found that genuine disputes of material fact existed as to whether Anderson’s requested accommodation was reasonable and necessary to afford her and C.A. an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their dwelling. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the City on the plaintiffs’ FHAA reasonable-accommodation claim.

Anderson v. City of Blue Ash, 2015 WL 4774591 (6th Cir. CA 8/14/2015)

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