LINCOLN, Neb. — A federal judge has ruled that university-owned housing is subject to the Fair Housing Act in the case of a University of Nebraska at Kearney student whose therapy dog wasn't allowed to live with her.
U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard issued the ruling Wednesday in the case of former UNK student Brittany Hamilton, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.
The U.S. Justice Department sued the university last year, saying it unlawfully denied Hamilton the chance to keep a 4-pound miniature pinscher named Butch in her university-owned apartment a mile off campus to cope with depression and anxiety.
The university's policy bans pets other than fish from its housing unless the student has a disability that requires a service animal or works as a hall director. The Justice Department lawsuit says 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.
In a motion on which the Wednesday hearing was held, the university argued that it's not subject to the federal housing law, because it serves only as a temporary home for students and should not be considered a dwelling.
UNK attorney Scott Moore compared university student housing to a hotel or jail. Neither is considered a dwelling under the federal Fair Housing Act.
He said many first-year students have to live in university housing, are assigned rooms and roommates and have to follow certain rules and restrictions.
But U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard said students who live in university housing eat meals, wash laundry, do schoolwork, socialize and sleep there, "just as people ordinarily do in the places they call home."
"While housing may have more rules than the average off-campus apartment," the judge said, "it is no more restrictive than many other places that people call home."
The university could appeal. If it doesn't, the case will move toward trial to determine if UNK violated the federal housing law.
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