DES MOINES — An Iowa City tenant with a severe allergy to pet dander will receive damages of one month’s rent from a landlord who allowed another tenant to have an emotional support dog in a building with a no-pet policy, according to an Iowa Supreme Court ruling Tuesday.
In a 4-3 decision, the court overturned a district court ruling that concluded the landlord, 2800-1 LLC, shouldn’t have allowed the tenant to have a dog because of the other tenant’s pet allergies, but then dismissed the case because the law governing accommodations for emotional support animals wasn’t clear.
Chief Justice Susan Christensen, who wrote for the majority, said the two tenants — Karen Cohen, who had severe allergies, and David Clark, who had the dog — had the landlord in a “pickle” trying to accommodate both of them. However, the landlord, who isn’t identified by name in the ruling, should have denied the dog request because Cohen lived there first and the dog posed a direct threat to her health.
The court concluded that Cohen, who suffered allergic attacks, was entitled to her claims of breach of lease and breach of the “covenant of quiet enjoyment.”
The ruling shows Cohen has a “medically documented severe allergy” to pet dander that causes nasal congestion, swollen sinuses and excess coughing. Her allergic reaction is more severe when exposed to cats, requiring her to carry an epinephrine auto-injectable device to protect against anaphylactic shock.
She needed an apartment that didn’t allow pets and signed a lease from 2800-1 LLC on Nov. 11, 2015 for the term of July 2016 to July 2017. Cohen relied on the lease that stated no pets were allowed in the building.
On Jan. 18, 2016, Clark signed a lease to rent an apartment down the hall from Cohen during the same lease period, according to the ruling. Clark’s lease also included the no-pet provision.
On or around Aug. 23, 2016, Clark gave the landlord a letter from his psychiatrist that explained he had an “impairment in his ability to function.” The psychiatrist asked the landlord to allow Clark to have a dog to benefit his “health and well-being.”
Jeffrey Clark, no relation to tenant, the leasing and property manager, notified other tenants in the building to see if anyone had allergies to dogs, according to the ruling. Cohen responded, detailing her allergies to dogs and cats.
The property manager then contacted the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and requested a formal agency determination, even though nobody had filed a complaint, the ruling states. The commission employee said he should accommodate Clark and Cohen, instead of denying the request for the emotional support dog.
There was no formal finding by the commission regarding this situation, according to the ruling.
The landlord allowed the dog and assigned Cohen and Clark to use separate stairwells to keep Cohen free from pet dander, according to the ruling. The landlord also bought an air purifier for Cohen’s apartment.
The yearlong efforts were insufficient to prevent Cohen from having allergic reactions to the dog, and she had to limit the time she spent in her apartment. Cohen said she felt as if she had a permanent cold.
On Sept. 27, 2017, Cohen filed a small-claims action against the landlord for one month’s rent as damages. After a January 2018 hearing, the court dismissed Cohen’s case July 1, concluding the landlord made reasonable accommodations of both Clark’s and Cohen’s needs. There was no breach of contract or quiet enjoyment.
Cohen appealed to the district court, which concluded that the landlord made sufficient efforts that would justify denying Clark’s request but dismissed Cohen’s claims because the law was unclear.
Christensen pointed out that this ruling is based on “specific facts” of this case.
“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,” Christensen said.
The case was sent back to district court for Cohen’s requested damages of one month’s rent.