Four years later, UNK, DOJ reach settlement

By Josh Moody, Kearney Hub, September 04, 2015

KEARNEY — Nearly four years of litigation ended Thursday when the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit that alleged UNK had violated the Fair Housing Act by not allowing service animals in student housing.

As part of the settlement, UNK will pay $140,000 to former students Brittany Hamilton and Denise Kraft.

Hamilton claimed she was denied the chance to keep a 4-pound miniature pinscher named Butch in her off-campus University Heights apartment.

According to court documents, Hamilton had been prescribed a therapy dog for anxiety attacks and a doctor’s note with these details was provided to UNK.

Hamilton’s request to keep Butch in student housing was denied by UNK, and she subsequently moved out of university housing and withdrew from UNK classes.

The consent order, filed by UNK and the DOJ on Thursday, states that UNK personnel responsible for accommodating student housing requests will be required to attend a Fair Housing Act education and training program within 90 days. UNK also must submit a compliance report to U.S. counsel within 120 days.

An attorney for the DOJ could not be reached prior to publication, but the department did address the settlement in a press release.

“This is an important settlement for students with disabilities not only at UNK but throughout the country,” said DOJ Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “Assistance animals such as support dogs can provide critical support and therapeutic benefits for persons with psychological disabilities. The Fair Housing Act requires that universities accommodate students who need such animals in order to have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of university housing.”

Scott Moore, an attorney representing UNK, said that the university was pleased with the outcome because it provided clear guidance on housing compliance.

Moore said he believes the effect of this case would be felt throughout the entire housing industry, not just university campuses.

In April 2013, in a precedent-setting ruling, Judge John M. Gerrard, of the 8th District Court in Lincoln found that UNK’s student housing facilities were subject to the Fair Housing Act. This was the first time a court held that the Fair Housing Act applies to colleges and universities.

Throughout litigation, UNK has denied any wrongdoing, and has maintained that the DOJ guidelines for service animals were not clearly established.

“Clearly, we are pleased to have the much-needed clarification, which our policies and forms will provide instead of the ‘guidance’ previously drafted and relied upon by the Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development without any formal rulemaking or public comment,” UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said.

“The consent order makes it clear there was no finding of liability or wrongdoing on the part of UNK or the Board of Regents and reiterates that UNK believed it was acting consistently with its goal to develop an academic community accessible to persons with disabilities to ensure equal educational opportunity for all,” the university said in a news release.

Kristensen and Moore said the litigation has been expensive, ranging into hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of legal fees.

“The amount that’s paid into the settlement fund, quite frankly, was just to avoid the continued, protracted litigation,” Moore said.

“I’m only disappointed that our sincere efforts to negotiate through the court were not reciprocated. We could have avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on litigation and electronic discovery and deployed those funds toward what UNK does best — providing access and supporting success for all of our valued students, including those with disabilities,” Kristensen said.

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