Posted by: Patricia Salkin | April 13, 2018

Fed. Dist Court of TX Finds no ADA or FHAA Violation in Relation to Exotic Animal Ordinance

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq.

A Texas federal district court held in March that a city ordinance banning non-human primates did not violate a property owner’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act Amendments. The property owner claimed that she was entitled to a reasonable accommodation so that she could continue to keep a pet lemur on her property, which she contended was an emotional support animal. The city determined that her requested accommodation was not reasonable, however, and the court agreed, because the lemur presented a threat to public safety. Baughman v. City of Elkhart, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50241 (E.D. Tex. 3/27/18)

The ordinance at issue was enacted after the plaintiff’s pet lemur attacked a woman who was shopping in her store, after having bitten several other persons in the past. In response to this incident the city enacted an ordinance that prohibited residents from keeping any “wild or vicious animal,” or any “exotic animal,” which specifically included “any non-human primate,” among other various animals. After the ordinance was enacted, however, the plaintiff sought to request a reasonable accommodation allowing her to keep the lemur, which she claimed was an emotional support animal. The city contended that it provided an opportunity for the plaintiff to present her position, but instead of identifying any specific disability or health issues underlying her need for the accommodation, she merely described additional security measures that she had put into place to prevent the lemur from attacking anyone else. The city denied her request, and this appeal followed.

The city reiterated its position on appeal that the ordinance was a valid exercise of its legislative and police powers and there was no evidence that it had engaged in any discriminatory housing practices in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Even if there were evidence of discrimination, the city argued, the plaintiff had still failed to submit a valid request for a reasonable accommodation, and even if she had, the request would have been properly denied because it was unreasonable based on the lemur’s history of attacks. In response, the plaintiff submitted evidence from a counselor and a physiologist averring that she had a mental health disability. She also claimed that while she had been allowed to present her reasonable accommodation request to the city council, the city had unfairly limited her time, allowed repeated interruptions, and prohibited her from submitting evidence or calling witnesses.

Although the court found that the plaintiff had a protected property interest in her lemur, it dismissed her substantive due process claim because the exotic animal ordinance was rationally related to legitimate public health and safety interests. The court also declined to find any procedural due process violations, because while she had complained about her ability to present evidence at her hearing, the plaintiff did not dispute that she had received notice and an opportunity to be heard. Next, on the issue of equal protection, the court determined that the ordinance was constitutionally sufficient because it applied generally to prohibit all people from keeping exotic animals, without any disparate impacts on particular groups or suspect classes, and there was no allegation that the plaintiff had been singled out and treated worse than other parties who were similarly situated.

The court next addressed the plaintiff’s claim that the city had impermissibly denied her request for a reasonable accommodation and explained that:

“The FHAA requires an accommodation if it is reasonable and necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing. The analysis of the reasonableness of the requested accommodation includes weighing the legitimate purposes and effects of the ordinance against the benefits that an accommodation would provide to the disabled individual.”

In this instance, the plaintiff sought an accommodation in the form of an exemption from the exotic animal ordinance so that she could keep her lemur and continue to reside in her home within the city limits. However, the court agreed with the city and determined that the plaintiff failed to show that her requested accommodation was reasonable. As the court noted: “Reasonableness is a highly fact-specific inquiry that requires balancing the Plaintiff’s needs with that of the governmental entity, but Plaintiff did not provide facts that would show that her interest in keeping her lemur outweighs the City’s interest in protecting its citizens.”

The plaintiff also challenged the ordinance under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the court dismissed this claim as well. In particular, the court noted that:

The ADA is more restrictive than the FHAA, in that qualification for a reasonable accommodation concerning an animal requires an animal that is ‘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.

The court also pointed out that a number of other cases have specifically found monkeys not to be service animals under the ADA because they do not perform day-to-day tasks related to their owners’ disabilities, but rather just provide comfort and companionship. The plaintiff was unable to produce any evidence that her lemur differed from these other monkey companion animals, and without any such evidence that her lemur assisted her in daily tasks related to her disability, she could not succeed on her ADA claim.

Because the plaintiff failed to state any viable claims for relief and there were no genuine issues of material fact, the court concluded that the city was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Baughman v. City of Elkhart, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50241 (E.D. Tex. 3/27/18)

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