U. of Nebraska at Kearney reaches settlement with Justice Department over housing lawsuit



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LINCOLN, Nebraska — The University of Nebraska at Kearney has agreed to enact new student housing policies and pay $140,000 to settle a Justice Department lawsuit that accused the university of violating federal law by not allowing therapy animals in student housing.

The settlement filed Thursday follows a 2011 lawsuit on a behalf of a former student, Brittany Hamilton, who had asked to keep a dog in her university apartment to cope with depression and anxiety.

The university maintains that it never violated any laws, but Chancellor Doug Kristensen said UNK settled to avoid a costly lawsuit and move forward with a new policy that ensures all students have equal access to housing.

"I'm only disappointed that our sincere efforts to negotiate through the court were not reciprocated," Kristensen said in a statement. "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."

Messages left with the Justice Department were not immediately returned.

Under the settlement, the university will adopt policies that allow students to apply for "reasonable accommodations" in their housing. Students without an obvious disability may be required to provide a doctor or medical professional's note saying the pet is necessary.

The university had previously banned pets other than fish from its housing unless a student had a disability such as blindness that required a service animal.

Hamilton had asked to keep a 4-pound miniature pinscher named Butch in her apartment but was denied. The Justice Department lawsuit alleged that Hamilton could not afford other housing options in or around Kearney, and needed the dog to focus on her school work.

An Omaha nurse prescribed the dog to help her handle anxiety attacks that made it difficult to sleep and breathe. Hamilton's mother trained the dog to place its front paws on her shoulders during an attack to relieve stress, according to the lawsuit.

Justice Department lawyers accused the university of violating the U.S. Fair Housing Act by not allowing an emotional assistance animal in the dwelling for a tenant with a mental illness.

The university's attorneys argued that the federal law doesn't apply to college housing because the apartments only serve as temporary homes, and only a small fraction of students live in the same room for more than a year. University administrators enforce rules not seen in normal leases, including an alcohol ban and a rule that prohibits students from hosting opposite-gender guests overnight.

University attorneys also argued that allowing dogs could set a precedent for other animals, such as cats, dogs, snakes or monkeys.

U.S. District Judge John Gerrard ruled in 2013 that the university's student housing facilities were subject to the Fair Housing Act. University officials say the decision was the first time a court held that Fair Housing Act applied to colleges and universities.

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