The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit revived a federal discrimination lawsuit August 14 brought by the family of a young girl who uses a miniature horse to accommodate her disabilities.
“While protecting public health and property values are central to the City’s interests, Anderson has produced evidence that the presence of one miniature horse at her house will not create unsanitary conditions or devalue her neighbors’ property, supported not only by her own testimony but by signed letters of support from her current neighbor,” a unanimous three-judge panel wrote in the 29-page decision [PDF].
The lawsuit focuses on a young girl with autism and seizures, among other disabilities, who lives in Blue Ash, Ohio. Since 2010, the girl, identified as C.A. in court papers, has owned Ellie, a miniature horse that assists her at her home.
After receiving multiple complaints from neighbors, a city official ordered C.A.’s family to remove Ellie from their home. Although the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals affirmed the official’s decision, the Blue Ash City Council declined to enforce the order after receiving a doctor’s note, stating that Ellie provides necessary support for C.A.
Two years later, the City Council not only reversed, but passed an ordinance banning residential horse ownership except where “otherwise specifically permitted by Hamilton County, Ohio State, or Federal Law.”
C.A.’s family sued the city in February 2014, with the assistance of the nonprofit law firm Housing Opportunity Made Equal. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled for the City on all counts.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, animals qualify as service animals if they are specifically trained to perform tasks related to a disability. Government agencies must provide reasonable accommodations to people who use service animals.
Although most ADA service animal regulations are designed exclusively for dogs, the law explicitly states that it applies to miniature horses.
The 6th Circuit determined that Ellie “indisputably” qualifies as a service animal, noting that she is trained to recognize when C.A. has seizures and assists her by steadying her as she walks, allowing her to enjoy independent recreation and exercise in her backyard.
As to whether the C.A’s requested accommodation qualifies as a “reasonable accommodation,” the Court examined multiple factors unique to miniature horses, finding enough of a factual dispute for the case to proceed to a jury.
Specifically, the City contended her residence is too small to accommodate Ellie, but the plaintiff rebutted that Ellie is uniquely suited for a smaller backyard. The City argued C.A. lacks sufficient control of Ellie and that Ellie is not housebroken. Although the plaintiffs concede the latter fact, it provided conflicting evidence as to the former allegation.
Finally, the City contends that Ellie’s presence compromised public safety, pointing to excess animal waste in the C.A. family’s backyard. The plaintiffs rebutted that they now have a regular service to remove waste and that most of their current neighbors have signed a petition supporting to their efforts to keep Ellie.
Pointing to similar factors, the 6th Circuit found that the city may also be required to reasonably accommodate C.A. under the Fair Housing Act. Contrarily, the 6th Circuit rejected C.A.’s claims for intentional discrimination under the ADA and FHA.
The case now returns to the District Court for further proceedings.