A woman with severe allergies signed a lease for an Iowa City apartment because of its no-pets policy. A man with a demonstrated need for comfort animals did, too…just down the hall.
A year later, they met in court. Three years later, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with the first tenant in a June 30 ruling that awards her the equivalent of one month's rent as damages.
The Iowa case is an interesting read in this July 2 article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. From the landlord's perspective, it shows that two rights don't make a wrong, but they can end up in a drawn-out court battle.
Making accommodations doesn't settle the dust
The problem arose two months after the woman signed a lease in July 2016 with 2800-1 LLC for an apartment she chose because of its no-pet policy and her severe allergy to pet dander. The man signed a lease about two months later for a unit down the hall.
The newspaper said the court documents show that the man gave 2800-1 LLC a psychiatrist's letter attesting to a mental condition that impaired the man's ability to function and citing research demonstrating that caring for animals provides a therapeutic benefit.
The property manager asked other tenants about the request, and the woman noted her allergy to him. The manager then took the case to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for a ruling, pointing out that he had other apartments in different buildings to offer the male tenant.
Separate stairwells and an air purifier
The commission told the property manager that offering a different apartment wasn't appropriate and to try to accommodate both tenants. According to the article, he did so by having them use separate stairwells and buying an air purifier for the woman's apartment.
The woman suffered allergy symptoms nonetheless and sued the landlord and her neighbor in small claims court in September 2017. The case wound its way to the Hawkeye State's high court after the first court said reasonable accommodations had been made and a district court said the state's law on emotional support animals was unclear.
The Iowa Supreme Court ultimately ruled with the allergy-stricken tenant because she had signed first.
Precedent and the unique nature of the case
Whether this ruling will add much to the weight of precedent used by judges everywhere to decide cases before them remains to be seen.
However, the rights of animal owners versus those who don't want them nearby is a much contested topic. Here's a rundown of such cases from the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University.
The Iowa judge in this case cited the unique nature of the case herself.
"To be clear, our holding today is based on the specific facts of this case," wrote Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen. "Our balancing in this case is not a one-size-fits-all test that will create the same result under different circumstances, such as when the animal at issue is a service animal for a visually disabled person."