By BEN MOORE
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE)’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in New York determined that Fordham University breached Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when it denied a student’s request to live with a service dog in university housing.
A letter signed by Timothy Blanchard, director of the New York OCR, on Feb. 24 2017, stated “OCR determined that the University was in violation of the regulation implementing Section 504,” which guarantees legal rights to an individual with a disability. The document specifies that this section is further supported by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s definition of a “service animal” and stated protections of disabled individuals from discrimination in places of public accommodation.
Despite her documented disability with the Office of Disability Services, Fordham denied the student’s request on three separate occasions since the process began in February of 2016. She submitted her request shortly after transferring to Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) and moving into McMahon Hall in the spring semester of 2016. On Aug. 4, 2016, just before she began her junior year, the DOE opened an investigation based on her allegations, with resolution proceedings that concluded in February of 2017.
The student seeking the service dog provided The Observer with the OCR’s Letter of Findings for the case and the Resolution Agreement, signed on Feb. 23, 2017 by Elaine Crosson, general counsel at Fordham. The Letter of Findings states that it should not be relied upon as a formal statement of OCR policy.
Per the OCR resolution document, Fordham denied the student’s request “in part because the documentation provided in support of the request was confusing, in that the complainant submitted documentation regarding various medical conditions at different times, and documentation was provided from doctors the dean did not believe would be most knowledgeable about the condition.” The document also states that the involved dean “did not believe that the documentation and information provided by the complainant adequately addressed how a service dog would address any major life activity affected by the complainant’s disability.”
Through the course of the investigation, the OCR decided that “the University considered the complainant to be a qualified individual with a disability” and that “the complainant followed University policy in making a request for a service animal for her housing, and provided documentation demonstrating a nexus between the animal’s proposed function and her disability.” The document also stated that the university’s policy on service animals was “not discriminatory against disabled individuals on its face.”
Further, the OCR determined that the student and university “engaged in an interactive process” regarding the matter, but that “the University failed to apply the appropriate standard when considering the complainant’s request.”
Among the listed reasons for this failure were that “the University based its ultimate denial of the request on the fact that the University did not believe the documentation provided by the complainant sufficiently addressed how a service dog would address any major life activity impacted by the complainant’s disability.”
OCR found that the provided documentation “was at least sufficient proof of the complainant’s arthritis diagnosis, which limited the major life activities of performing manual tasks and walking; of the animal’s proposed function; and of the nexus between the complainant’s disability and the animal’s function.” Additionally, OCR determined that after denying the complainant’s request, Fordham did not offer any alternatives to accommodate her disabilities.
In an email response, Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Lincoln Center, stated “the University would not communicate on the situation, because the matter has not concluded.”
The resolution agreement explains that in order to resolve the case, “Fordham University assures the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), that it will take the actions detailed below pursuant to the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.” The three action items are listed below:
1. “By February 28, 2017, the University will notify the complainant that the documentation she submitted in support of her request to live with a service animal in University housing contained sufficient proof of the complainant’s disabilities; of the proposed animal’s function; and of the nexus between the complainant’s disabilities and the proposed animal’s function.”
2. “By March 31, 2017, the University will provide training to all University staff responsible for evaluating requests for disability-related accommodations in housing, on the policies and procedures applicable to processing requests for disability-related accommodations.”
3. “By March 15, 2017, the University will assess whether the complainant requires any academic remediation as a result of academic deficiencies she suffered during academic years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 because she did not have approval to have a service dog living with her in University housing.”
The resolution agreement continues that “OCR will not close the monitoring of this agreement until OCR determines that the University has fulfilled the terms of this agreement” and that “OCR may visit the University, interview staff, and request such additional reports or data as are necessary” to determine whether the University has fulfilled the terms of this agreement.
The university issued a letter signed by Jeffrey Gray, senior vice president for student affairs, to the student on Feb. 27, 2017 regarding the OCR’s resolution. The letter requires her to “submit documentation to the University demonstrating that the service animal is trained to perform the functions that you indicated would accommodate your disabilities.” Per the letter, Fordham would have 10 days to notify the student of any deficiencies in the submitted paperwork.
In compliance with the OCR Resolution Agreement, the letter states that Fordham will grant the request, except if it “requires a fundamental alteration in the housing program,” “creates an undue burden on the University” or “the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety” of other students. Fordham must consider “effective alternatives” if any of these conditions are met.
As for the student, her next steps include bringing Ella, a German Shepard mix who will spend a couple of months in training before returning to the student to continue training with her in the summer, to her non-Fordham residence. The student says that Ella will hopefully be done with her training by the fall semester, but will go back for a little more training if needed.
“Now I’m very happy, but prior to that, it was a lot of frustration and a lot of waiting,” the student said when commenting on the approval process that has now lasted over a year.
During training, Ella will be judged against the public access test, a guideline used by service dog organizations to determine if a dog is well-behaved enough to take into public. The student explained that some of the training includes “how the dog walks through a doorway [or] how the dog walks next to you,” and teaching the dog to obey stopping and sitting commands.