KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney has agreed on terms with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve disputed claims alleging UNK violated the Fair Housing Act by not allowing assistance animals in university housing.
The parties filed a motion for entry of a consent order today in U.S. District Court of Nebraska.
“UNK takes seriously its responsibility to serve all students equitably, including those with disabilities,” said UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen. “This resolution is a reasonable outcome that avoids a costly trial and allows UNK to move forward in implementing an assistance animal policy that both ensures equitable access for students with disabilities while also respecting the needs of all students.”
UNK will implement new policies agreed to under the consent order that will allow UNK to verify whether the individual making the request has an actual disability, if the accommodation is actually necessary for the individual’s disability, and if it is reasonable for the student to have the animal in a university residence hall. DOJ initially argued that these types of inquiries were illegal and represented evidence of intentional discrimination.
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.
“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,” said Kristensen.
The Justice Department initially filed the action on Nov. 23, 2011, relative to whether the Fair Housing Act applies to colleges and universities – the first such action of its kind in the nation. On April 19, 2013, Judge John M. Gerrard, of the 8th District Court in Lincoln, held that the university’s student housing facilities were dwellings subject to coverage under the Fair Housing Act. The decision was the first time a court held that the Fair Housing Act was applicable to colleges and universities.
UNK has maintained throughout the case that it has followed established accommodation practices and that the extension of the Fair Housing Act to university residence halls was not clearly established prior to the DOJ bringing this case. After UNK turned over tens of thousands of pages of documents in the case, DOJ did not find any evidence of discrimination and was left with the same facts with which it started.
The university acknowledges that policies and procedures developed under the consent order provide a sensible and reasonable approach for colleges and universities to attempt to comply with the Fair Housing Act and accommodate students who need assistance animals in the unique setting of university housing.
UNK agreed to pay $140,000 to a settlement fund as part of the agreement.
Kristensen concluded: “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.”
Writer: Todd Gottula, Director of Communications, 308.293.2602, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Kelly Bartling, Assistant Vice Chancellor Communications and Community Relations, 308.865.8455