Cohen v. Clark

Decision Date30 June 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-2173,18-2173
Parties Karen COHEN, Appellant, v. David CLARK and 2800-1 LLC, Appellees.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Christopher Warnock of The Tenants’ Project, Iowa City, for appellant.

Amy L. Evenson of Larson & Evenson, Iowa City, for appellee David Clark.

Erek P. Sittig of Holland, Michael, Raiber & Sittig, PLC, Iowa City, for appellee 2800-1 LLC.

CHRISTENSEN, Chief Justice.

This case involves a tenant with pet allergies who moved into an apartment building due to its no-pets policy, a neighboring tenant who sought a waiver of the no-pets policy for his emotional support dog, and a landlord in a pickle trying to accommodate both of them. In an attempt to please both parties, the landlord allowed the emotional support dog on the premises while requiring the two tenants to use different stairways and providing an air purifier for the tenant with pet allergies. These measures failed to prevent the tenant from suffering allergic attacks. She sued the landlord and her neighboring tenant in small claims court for breach of the lease's no-pets provision and interference with the quiet enjoyment of her apartment. As a defense, the landlord asserted that its waiver of the no-pets policy was a reasonable accommodation that it had no choice but to grant under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA).

The small claims court dismissed the case, concluding the landlord's accommodations were reasonable. On appeal to the district court, the district court concluded the landlord should have denied the emotional support dog request due to the other tenant's pet allergies but dismissed the case due to the uncertainty of the law governing reasonable accommodations for emotional support animals. Both tenants filed applications for discretionary review, and the landlord filed a consent to discretionary review. We granted discretionary review and retained the appeal.

Under our highly fact-specific inquiry that balances the parties’ needs, we conclude the landlord's accommodation of the emotional support dog was not reasonable because the tenant with pet allergies had priority in time and the dog's presence posed a direct threat to her health. We also conclude that the tenant suffering allergic attacks was entitled to recover on her claims of breach of lease and breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment and remand for an award of her requested damages of one month's rent. To be clear, our holding today is based on the specific facts of this case. Our balancing in this case is not a one-size-fits-all test that will create the same result under different circumstances, such as when the animal at issue is a service animal for a visually disabled person. Nevertheless, the fact that the tenant with allergies was first in time and the dog posed a direct threat to her health tips the balance in her favor in this case. Thus, we reverse the district court's dismissal.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

Karen Cohen has a medically documented severe allergy to pet dander that causes nasal congestion, swollen sinuses, excess coughing, and, at times, a swollen throat. Her allergic reaction

is more severe when she is exposed to cats, compared to dogs, requiring her to carry an EpiPen to protect against anaphylactic shock if she is exposed to cat dander. Cohen's allergy to cats used to be the same as her allergy to dogs but progressed through repeated exposure, and she worried that her allergy to dogs would similarly progress if she were repeatedly exposed to their dander.

Due to her severe pet allergies, Cohen sought an apartment building that did not allow pets. On November 11, 2015, she entered into a written lease agreement to rent an apartment from 2800-1 LLC at a rent of $1464 per month in Iowa City for the term of July 21, 2016 to July 12, 2017. In deciding to enter a lease agreement with 2800-1 LLC, Cohen relied upon section 53 of the written agreement, which states,

No pets are allowed in the building or on the Premises at any time. Tenants may be assessed labor cleanup charges (if applicable) for each violation. Tenants agree to an increase in the rental deposit up to the maximum allowed by law in the events of non-compliance with pet prohibitions. Reasonable accommodations accepted.

On January 18, 2016, approximately two months after Cohen entered into her lease, David Clark entered into a written lease agreement with 2800-1 LLC to rent an apartment down the hall from Cohen's for the term of July 21, 2016 to July 12, 2017. Clark's lease contained the same no-pets provision as Cohen's lease. After Clark's and Cohen's leases began, Clark presented 2800-1 LLC with a letter from his psychiatrist on or around August 23, which explained Clark's chronic mental illness causing "impairment in his ability to function." The psychiatrist noted,

Research has shown that pets are therapeutic and beneficial to physical and mental health. In my professional opinion, owning and caring for a dog would benefit his health and well-being. Please allow David to include a pet on his lease.

Clark requested a reasonable accommodation to have his emotional support animal (ESA), a dog, with him on the apartment premises.

Jeffrey Clark (no relationship to plaintiff), the leasing and property manager, notified the other tenants in the building of the request to accommodate the ESA and inquired about whether any tenant had allergies to dogs. Cohen responded, detailing her allergies to cats and dogs and the symptoms associated with those allergies. After receiving Cohen's response, Jeffrey contacted the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) and requested the ICRC's review or a formal agency determination even though no party ever filed a complaint. Jeffrey explained to the ICRC employee over the phone that 2800-1 LLC had apartments in other buildings available that allowed pets and could accommodate Clark's request by renting him a different apartment in a different building. The ICRC staffer advised Jeffrey that moving Clark to another building was not a reasonable accommodation and informed Jeffrey that he had to try to reasonably accommodate both Cohen's allergies and Clark's ESA rather than deny Clark's ESA request. There was no finding by the ICRC that allowing Clark's ESA in the building despite Cohen's allergic reactions

would be a reasonable accommodation.

2800-1 LLC allowed Clark to have his ESA join him on the apartment premises while trying to mitigate Cohen's allergies. In doing so, 2800-1 LLC had Cohen and Clark use separate assigned stairwells in an effort to keep Cohen free of the ESA's dander. 2800-1 LLC also purchased an air purifier for Cohen's apartment to minimize her exposure to pet dander inside the apartment. 2800-1 LLC explored installing "air lock" doors on each of the four floors of the apartment building to reduce the amount of air infiltration but ultimately decided it was not financially feasible because the cost estimate of doing so was $81,715.92.

The year-long accommodation efforts were insufficient to prevent Cohen from having allergic reactions

to the ESA, and she had to limit the amount of time she spent in her apartment building. Cohen testified that her "nose was constantly stuffy" and her "sinuses were swollen." She further testified that "[f]or a certain period of time [her] throat did feel like it was starting to swell." Cohen thought perhaps someone was fostering a cat for a brief period of time when her throat was swelling up because that is a symptom she typically experiences when exposed to cats. However, she continued to experience other side effects of her allergy to dogs as well as cats throughout her time living in the apartment building. She explained that she was "constantly coughing or trying to get excess mucus out of [her] vocal fold area," as if she had a permanent cold. Cohen was taking multiple allergy medicines in addition to her daily allergy medication, including Benadryl every night, nasal sprays, and twice-a-day nasal rinses.

On September 27, 2017, Cohen brought a small claims action against 2800-1 LLC and Clark seeking one month's rent as damages. Cohen alleged 2800-1 LLC breached the express covenant of her lease that provided for no pets and the implied warranty of quiet enjoyment by allowing Clark to have his dog on the premises as an ESA. She also alleged Clark, through the presence of his ESA, violated her quiet enjoyment of her unit under Iowa Code section 562A.17(7) (2017), Iowa's landlord and tenant law. 2800-1 LLC asserted as a defense that it had to reasonably accommodate Clark's ESA under Iowa Code section 216.8A(3)(c )(2), the ICRA. 2800-1 LLC cross-claimed for indemnification from Clark for any damage to Cohen.

Following a January 24, 2018 hearing on the matter, the small claims court dismissed Cohen's case on July 1. The small claims court concluded 2800-1 LLC made reasonable accommodations of both Clark's and Cohen's needs.1 Consequently, the small claims court determined Cohen had no claim for breach of contract or quiet enjoyment. The small claims court also explained there was no authority under Iowa law to allow a claim between cotenants for Cohen's claim against Clark for breach of quiet enjoyment.2 Cohen filed a timely notice of appeal to the district court three days later.

On appeal to the district court, the district court concluded 2800-1 LLC made sufficient efforts that would have justified denying Clark's request for reasonable accommodation or asking him to move to another apartment building. The district court explained,

That conclusion is based on the good faith effort to make a reasonable accommodation and the inability to identify a solution to mitigate the harm to the health and safety of Ms. Cohen. In essence, having attempted to accommodate the request and being unable to do so, the Landlord could and should have denied Mr. Clark's request at that point.

Nevertheless, the district court dismissed Cohen's claims against 2800-1 LLC and Clark because, at the time these...

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