Department of Justice Settles Civil Rights Lawsuit Alleging Discriminatory Assistance Animal Policy at Largest Cooperative Development in the United States
Co-op City Agrees to Enhance Accessibility, Pay Civil Penalties and Establish an Aggrieved Persons Fund
The Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced today that the United States has simultaneously filed and settled a civil rights lawsuit against RiverBay Corporation, which manages “Co-op City,” the largest affordable housing cooperative in the United States, alleging that RiverBay failed to provide reasonable accommodations to people who require service or assistance animals. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that RiverBay maintains and employs an overly burdensome and intrusive policy governing waivers to its no-pets rule, which has deterred and prevented persons with disabilities from obtaining reasonable accommodations, in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. The consent decree was approved on June 2, 2015, by U.S. District Court Judge Valerie E. Caproni.
“Assistance animals provide vital support and therapeutic benefits for persons with disabilities,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division. “This significant settlement underscores the department’s commitment to ensuring that housing providers make reasonable accommodations for individuals who rely on assistance animals to use and enjoy their homes.”
“Housing providers must allow for reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities, including granting requests to keep assistance or service animals,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York. “Today’s settlement benefits all those who require or may someday require a service or assistance animal, as it ensures that RiverBay will implement a reasonable accommodation policy consistent with the Fair Housing Act and that people who were unlawfully denied full use of their residences will be compensated appropriately. We thank RiverBay for its cooperation in improving housing accessibility for all of its residents and in providing for a more caring and compassionate environment for Bronx residents.”
“Housing providers have a legal obligation to grant people with disabilities the reasonable accommodations they need,” said Assistant Secretary Gustavo Velasquez of HUD. “Thanks to this settlement, RiverBay residents who need assistance animals or other accommodations will now be able to fully enjoy their homes.”
According to the complaint filed in federal court:
RiverBay, located in the Bronx, New York, is the owner and operator of the largest affordable housing cooperative in the United States, with approximately 15,372 residential units and 60,000 residents. RiverBay has used an unlawful policy governing waivers to its no-pets rule to deny accommodation requests of persons with disabilities, and has engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination toward persons with disabilities who request accommodations to its no-pets rule. Specifically, until December 2011, when RiverBay amended its policy and application governing reasonable accommodations, RiverBay’s application for requesting a reasonable accommodation to its no-pets rule consisted of five forms (including one required to be completed only in blue ink and another required to be typewritten), prohibited certain breeds of dogs, required animals to be neutered or spayed, imposed annual renewal requirements and required the applicant to provide his or her medical records. In December 2011 and again in July 2014, RiverBay amended its reasonable accommodation policy, but left in place many of the provisions in the first policy, including a prohibition against certain breeds of animals, a prohibition which RiverBay could waive based only on an applicant’s “medical need” for that particular breed.
Moreover, between 1995 and 2014, the Secretary of HUD, the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal and the New York City Commission on Human Rights received and investigated multiple complaints about RiverBay’s practices concerning reasonable accommodation requests. HUD issued three separate charges of discrimination against RiverBay and participated in two administrative hearings before an administrative law judge (ALJ) concerning RiverBay’s reasonable accommodation policy. In each proceeding, the ALJ determined that RiverBay had violated the FHA. In addition, between January 2005 and November 2011, RiverBay denied 28 out of 42 requests for reasonable accommodations to its no-pets rule; another two individuals did not complete the application process.
Under the consent decree approved today, RiverBay will adopt the reasonable accommodation policy regarding assistance animals that is included in the consent decree.
In addition, RiverBay has agreed to pay a civil penalty of up to $50,000, and to dedicate as much as $600,000 to compensate people who have been harmed by inadequate accessibility at Co-op City.
Under the settlement, a person may be entitled to receive monetary compensation if he or she was a resident of RiverBay, or associated with a resident of RiverBay, and was:
prevented or discouraged from requesting to keep an assistance animal;
denied a request to keep an assistance animal; or
harassed or otherwise interfered with after requesting to keep an assistance animal.
Individuals who wish to make a claim for discrimination concerning Co-op City on the basis of disability, or with any information about persons who may have such a claim, can contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York by phone at (212) 637-2800, by fax at (212) 637-2702, online at www.justice.gov/usao/nys/civilrights or write to:
United States Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York
Attn: Civil Rights Unit
86 Chambers Street
New York, New York 10007
Individuals with a disability who believe that they are being discriminated against by their housing provider may contact the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office, Department of Housing & Urban Development, 26 Federal Plaza, Room 3532, New York, New York, 10278-0068 and at (800) 496-4294.
This case is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York’s Civil Rights Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellen Blain of the Southern District of New York is in charge of the case.