Dr. J.L. Thomas and I wrote an article for psychological and medical professionals regarding letters that such professionals are asked to write on behalf of patients with service and support animals. In the article, which appeared in the Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, we analyzed letters that were influential in legal cases where patients sued to gain access to public accommodations, transportation, or housing. We also analyzed letters that had the opposite effect, either not helping patients or actually harming their cases. A recent case from a federal district court in California involves a letter from a psychiatrist that was the primary evidence that persuaded the judge to grant summary judgment for the patient who had sued the landlords for failing to grant her a reasonable accommodation to live with a dog that, according to the psychiatrist, was “of much benefit to her mental state and necessary for her continued stabilization.”
Difficulty with a Landlord
Sharon Smith suffers from various mental disabilities, with symptoms that include depression, frequent bouts of crying, and anxiety. Her psychiatrist, Dr. David L. Friedman, concluded that she was “temporarily totally disabled,” and diagnosed her as having adjustment disorder, pain disorder, and insomnia. Smith herself states that her mental disabilities inhibit her ability to take care of herself, get out of bed, interact with others, and remain focused. She also suffers from injuries to both wrists, for which she has received surgery but has not fully recovered.
Smith has lived with a companion dog, Layla, a ten-pound terrier. Smith asserts that the dog helps to alleviate the symptoms of her mental disabilities, and stated in a declaration to the federal district court for the Central District of California that Layla “helps me keep a regular routine of caring for myself, motivates me to get out bed, clean, maintain relationships with friends and family, and to exercise.”
In June 2012, Smith moved into an apartment rented by Harold and Zelma Powdrill before seeing, signing, or reviewing a lease agreement. She informed Philip Powdrill, a son of the owners, that she would be living with a dog, which she told him was a companion animal necessary to address her disabilities. Philip sent a text message to Smith asking her how the dog was doing in its new home.
On June 30, Valerie Powdrill, the daughter of the owners, gave Smith a copy of the rental agreement to review and sign. The agreement included a no-pets clause that stated: “No dog, cat, bird, or other domestic pet or animal of any kind may be kept on or about the premises without LANDLORD’s written consent.” Smith signed the lease but did not initial the page with the no-pet provision.
According to the federal district court for the Central District of California:
“Uncomfortable with representations by Philip Powdrill that she could keep the dog so long as she kept it on the ‘down low,’ … , on or about July 12, 2012 Plaintiff sent a handwritten letter to Defendants requesting an exception to the no-pet policy…. In the letter, Plaintiff introduced herself as a new tenant and stated that she has undergone surgery to both her hands due to workplace injuries, receives disability benefits, and is currently attending physical and mental therapy…. Plaintiff stated that she was unaware of the no-pet policy when she moved in and requested an accommodation to allow her to keep the dog because it had been deemed a necessary form of emotional support by her doctor…. She described the dog as ‘well trained, doesn't bark, [and] completely house broken.’”
The Psychiatrist’s Letter
To her own letter, Smith attached a letter from her psychiatrist, Dr. Friedman, stating:
“Please be advised that I have been treating Ms. Smith since April 2012. As part of her psychiatric difficulty she suffers from a severe Adjustment Disorder, Pain Disorder, and Insomnia. Due to Ms. Smith's psychiatric condition, having a companion animal would be of much benefit to her mental state and necessary for her continued stabilization. I believe, Ms. Smith should be allowed to have such animal at her place of residence. Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact this office.”
Zelma Powdrill replied to Smith’s letter on July 16, 2012, denying the request for an accommodation. The letter said that Smith had given differing explanations as to who owned the dog and whether it would be living with her, adding: "Your letter dated July 12, 2012, asking us to allow you and the dog to stay, indicates you are in possession of a dog in the apartment…. Our lease clearly states no pets are allowed, therefore we have enclosed a NOTICE TO PERFORM CONDITIONS AND COVENANTS OR QUIT." The notice was attached, stating that Smith had three days to comply or leave the premises.
On July 24, 2012, a former case analyst at the Housing Rights Center, Gabriela Garcia, called and spoke to Zelma Powdrill, telling her that Smith was a person with mental disabilities and requires the use of a companion animal to alleviate the symptoms of her disabilities. Zelma insisted that she would not allow Smith to keep the companion dog in the unit, saying that it would result in extra costs to renovate the apartment, that dogs are meant to be kept outside, and that she wanted Smith out of the unit. Garcia sent a letter to Zelma concerning their conversation and confirming the Powdrills’ refusal to grant the requested accommodation.
Smith vacated the apartment on March 7, 2013.
Tenant Files Lawsuit
Smith filed suit under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the California Disabled Persons Act, and on other grounds, asserting that the Powdrills’ actions had caused her emotional distress, including stress, heightened depression, increased anxiety, fear of retaliation and eviction, and humiliation. She sought compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees. The federal district court granted summary judgment to Smith under the three Acts, meaning that the primary issue left to litigate will be the amount of damages for which the Powdrills will be liable.
As Dr. Thomas and I note in our article, it should not be necessary to give a diagnosis in a letter but, particularly in housing situations, the inclusion of a diagnosis has often been persuasive to courts and appears to have been so here. The letter was obviously written by the doctor himself, as opposed to reading as if downloaded from a website or written by the patient for the doctor to sign. It avoids any overly broad statement about what benefit the dog will provide—that is, no cure is claimed. Rather, it simply states that “a companion animal would be of much benefit to her mental state and necessary for her continued stabilization.” Finally, the psychiatrist indicates his willingness to talk with the landlords if they should wish. It was the refusal of the landlords to engage in any kind of dialogue with the tenant, to find out anything more about what the dog meant to her, to even consider that it might not just be a pet, that doomed their case. If Dr. Thomas and I ever revise our article, this decision will be included.