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Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of New York

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, May 28, 2015

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Settles Civil Rights Claims Against Housing Cooperative For Failing To Reasonably Accommodate Residents With Disabilities Who Need Emotional Assistance Animals

NYC Cooperative Will Enact a Reasonable Accommodation Policy and Pay Compensatory Damages

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Gustavo Velasquez, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, announced today that the United States has settled civil rights claims under the Fair Housing Act against EAST RIVER HOUSING CORPORATION (“EAST RIVER”) stemming from EAST RIVER’s alleged denial of reasonable accommodations to its residents by prohibiting them from keeping emotional assistance animals.  The settlement agreement, which was approved on May 27, 2015, by U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos, provides that EAST RIVER will adopt and implement a policy for providing reasonable accommodations to residents with disabilities and will train its employees and officers to follow the new policy.  In the settlement agreement, EAST RIVER also agrees to permit two of the three residents named in the suit to have emotional assistance animals in their apartments and to compensate them financially for the alleged discrimination against them.

U.S. Attorney Bharara said:  “This settlement ensures that future East River residents with disabilities who are in need of assistance animals will not face the kind of discrimination alleged in the complaint.  Emotional assistance animals are not pets, and they must be permitted when an individual with a disability demonstrates a need for such an animal, regardless of a building’s no-pets policy.”

Assistant Secretary Velasquez said: “Support animals provide persons with disabilities with the stability and assistance needed to maintain their independence.  They are not pets.  We are extremely pleased that the settlement makes this clear, and that East River residents with disabilities will now be granted the reasonable accommodations they need.”

According to the complaint filed in Manhattan federal court:

EAST RIVER is a private 1,672-unit housing cooperative on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  It has no written or established policies or procedures for making reasonable accommodations for individuals who require service or emotional support animals because of a disability.  Complainants Amy Eisenberg, Steven Gilbert, and Stephanie Aaron, all EAST RIVER residents, each brought a dog into their apartments and sought to be permitted to keep those dogs as reasonable accommodations of their disabilities.  EAST RIVER either denied the requests or failed to respond to them, and instead instituted eviction proceedings against each of the complainants in New York City Housing Court (“Housing Court”).  The three residents then filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and/or the New York State Division of Human Rights, which in each case found reasonable cause to believe that EAST RIVER had violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to grant the requested accommodation, and in the case of Mr. Gilbert further found that EAST RIVER had retaliated against him for exercising his right to file a complaint.  EAST RIVER elected to have the claims against it brought in federal court.

The Government’s complaint alleges that EAST RIVER violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to make reasonable accommodations when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy their dwellings, and by coercing, intimidating, threatening, and interfering with the exercise or enjoyment of a dwelling on account of a complainant’s having exercised his or her rights under the Act.  The Government further alleged that EAST RIVER’s conduct constituted a pattern of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights granted by the Fair Housing Act, and a denial to a group of persons of the rights granted by the Fair Housing Act.

During the course of the litigation, EAST RIVER refused to discontinue its efforts to evict two of the three complainants, Mr. Gilbert and Ms. Aaron.  Instead, it sought to enforce a Housing Court order requiring Mr. Gilbert to pay approximately $30,000 of EAST RIVER’s attorney’s fees in that proceeding on threat of eviction, and it sought to enforce a Housing Court eviction order against Ms. Aaron.   After EAST RIVER insisted on moving forward with these actions, the Government sought, and obtained, temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions from the federal court enjoining EAST RIVER from taking steps to evict the complainants until the case could be decided at trial.

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As part of today’s settlement, EAST RIVER will enact a reasonable accommodation policy that explicitly acknowledges its responsibility to provide accommodations to persons with disabilities, including permitting residents with disabilities to keep emotional assistance animals or service animals in their apartments, and streamlines the process by which residents can apply for such accommodations.  EAST RIVER will further train its officers and employees about the reasonable accommodation policy and the Fair Housing Act.  EAST RIVER will also inform its current and future residents of this new policy.

In addition, to settle the Government’s claim on Mr. Gilbert’s behalf, EAST RIVER will permit Mr. Gilbert to keep a dog in his apartment, pay him $30,000, and forgive the attorney’s fees judgment of approximately $30,000 it obtained against him in the Housing Court.  To settle the Government’s claim on Ms. Eisenberg’s behalf, EAST RIVER will permit Ms. Eisenberg to keep her dog in her apartment, pay her $55,000, forgive eight months’ basic maintenance payments, and withdraw its eviction case against her in Housing Court.  The third complainant, Ms. Aaron, reached a separate settlement with EAST RIVER in the Housing Court, and on that basis the Government dismissed its claim on her behalf.

If you are a person with a disability who believes that you are being discriminated against by your housing provider, you may contact the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 26 Federal Plaza, Room 3532, New York, NY 10278-0068, and at (800) 496-4294.

This case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit.  Assistant United States Attorneys Jean-David Barnea and Elizabeth Tulis are in charge of the case.

Press Release Number: 
15-134
Updated May 28, 2015