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Subtle difference between therapy and service dogs and the legal ramifications…

For denying a student permission to live in campus housing with her therapy dog, the federal government has charged the University of Nebraska at Kearney and five of its administrators with violations of the Fair Housing Act.

The student enrolled at the university in August 2010 and registered with its disability-services office, disclosing two conditions: depression and anxiety. She requested that campus officials let her therapy animal, a four-pound miniature pinscher, live with her in the University Heights apartments. (University policy allows only fish, service animals, and hall directors’ cats or dogs in campus housing.)

The student submitted a note from her nurse and signed a release for the campus counseling center to obtain her medical records, but, according to the complaint, administrators said she did not follow the university’s psychological-documentation guidelines, which ask for a diagnosis; a treatment plan, including prescribed medication; a clinical summary of limitations; and a rationale for each requested accommodation.

After administrators denied the student’s request, she suffered physical and emotional distress, including anxiety attacks, and ultimately withdrew from the university in October of 2010, the complaint says.

Last year the Department of Justice updated its guidance on what qualifies as a service animal under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The new rules include only dogs and miniature horses that are trained to perform tasks for the benefit of a disabled person; the guidelines specifically exclude so-called therapy animals whose mere presence provides emotional support.

The University of Nebraska claimed that this dog was not a service dog but a pet. Even so, the Fair Housing Act applies to campus housing at both public and private colleges, and it diverges from disability law with respect to animals. The Housing Department released a memo in February emphasizing individuals’ rights to keep emotional-support animals that allow them “equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling,” so long as there is a relationship “between the individual’s disability and the assistance the animal provides.”

Colleges must carefully consider requests on a case-by-case basis, particularly for therapy animals, Ms. Jarrow said. “The issue becomes, Is there credible evidence that having the animal there is going to make a substantial difference for this student in terms of being able to function effectively?”

The Housing Department also recently pursued charges against Millikin University, in Decatur, Ill., after it allegedly refused to let a blind, epileptic student live in a dormitory with a service dog. There’s no trend in complaints against colleges, a spokeswoman for the department said in an e-mail, but students are increasingly aware of their rights and “know that they apply to colleges and universities when it comes to living on campus.”

Citing from: “Federal Case Over Banning a Student’s Therapy Dog Illustrates Thicket of Disability Rules” by Sara Lipka



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