Iowa home for women in crisis sued for barring emotional-support dog

An Iowa lawyer who lost his driving privileges after a drunken-driving stop is arguing the police didn't let him speak privately with his own attorney. (Photo by Getty Images)

Should a home for women in crisis be forced to accommodate their clients’ emotional-support pets?

That’s the question posed by a lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission.

The commission, which works to prevent housing discrimination within the city, is seeking more than $165,000 in damages and penalties from the nonprofit Iowa Recovery House for Women Foundation. The commission is suing the foundation and its president, Melinda Neff, on behalf of Melissa Fessler, a city resident who claims the foundation has unfairly denied her housing due to her need for an emotional-support dog.

As part of the lawsuit, the commission says Fessler “is a person with a disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder.” In early 2019, Fessler allegedly sought housing from the foundation, which provides shelter for women it describes as “in crisis” and seeking to become independent, productive and sober.

According to the commission, after Fessler was offered housing by the foundation, Fessler sent the organization a text message, saying she had “a therapy emotional-support dog,” and she later provided the foundation with all of the relevant medical documentation associated with the animal and her disability.

According to the lawsuit, the foundation responded by sending Fessler a text message that read, “We don’t allow fur babies in the home. I do understand how you feel about him … We just don’t allow them.”

Fessler then filed a complaint with the commission alleging the foundation had discriminated against her based on her disability and her need for a therapy dog, an alleged violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Des Moines Municipal Code.

The commission is now seeking punitive damages, civil penalties, and other legal relief from what it calls the “discriminatory actions” of the foundation. The commission alleges Fessler “has suffered actual damages of mental pain and suffering, lost employment, rent differential, and incidental and consequential costs and property loss associated with the denial of housing.”

The commission’s lawsuit seeks actual damages in the amount of $15,000, plus civil penalties totaling $100,000, plus punitive damages of $50,000, plus $400 “toward the cost of billboard advertising on fair housing in Des Moines.”

The Iowa Recovery House for Women’s website states in its tenant rules and regulations, “No pets of any kind.”

The foundation has denied allegations of discrimination. A trial is scheduled for May 2022.

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