This Fordham student, who has asked The Observer to not disclose her identity, requested a service dog to live with her on campus, but the university denied her request. The Department of Education has since opened an investigation into the student’s allegations.
(PHOTO BY BEN MOORE/THE OBSERVER)
By BEN MOORE & MATTHEW MCCARTHY
Editor-in-Chief & Managing Editor
Fordham University denied a student’s request for a service dog to live with her on campus, despite her documented disability with the Office of Disability Services. 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, just before she began her junior year, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) opened an investigation based on her allegations. Since then, the university also offered her $5,000 during settlement proceedings, which she rejected.
The Observer has granted the student anonymity for this story to prevent potential hiring discrimination in the future based on her medical conditions, but she has agreed to publish relevant identifying information for this article exclusive to The Observer. She also provided us with the documentation that she submitted to various members of the Fordham administration, including an annotated copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), her medical information that has been verified and signed by her doctors as well as her email correspondence with the university.
Colleges are required to provide reasonable accommodations for service animals under both the Fair Housing Act (FHAct) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, according to an official Housing and Development (HUD) notice on service animals for people with disabilities. The section of Fordham’s student handbook on animals complies with these documents, stating, “For reasons of health, safety, compassion for animals, and inconvenience to other students, no animals, including but not limited to dogs and cats, are permitted in any University buildings or unleashed on University property, except as in accordance with the law.”
The Observer has also learned that Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has no record of any other investigation involving service animals at Fordham University.
“[AS] basically causes multiple places in my body to be inflamed and painful,” she said.
The student provided The Observer with a letter from the DOE dated Aug. 16, 2016, stating that the OCR would move forward with the investigation since it “determined that it has jurisdiction and that the complaint was filed in a timely manner.” The student alleges that the university discriminated against her on the basis of her disability by denying her request for a service dog.
The student’s disability is an inflammatory rheumatic disease called ankylosing spondyloarthritis (AS).
“[AS] basically causes multiple places in my body to be inflamed and painful,” she said. “Like today, I’m fine, today’s a good day. But there are times when I can’t walk that far, can’t go upstairs, sometimes can’t get out of bed. It’s physical disabilities, so like being able or not able to do certain things.”
Symptoms typically manifest in two ways; either through inflammation that causes pain and stiffness in the spine, or through bone destruction which could lead to deformities of the spine and reduced function of the shoulders and hips, according to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR). “There is no cure for ankylosing spondylitis, but treatments can lessen your symptoms and possibly slow progression of the disease,” Mayo Clinic states.
The student says that she suffers from an immunodeficiency as a result of the medication that she takes to treat AS. She also experiences hypoglycemia, a deficiency of glucose in the bloodstream, and has trouble with orthostatic retention, or getting up from a supine position.
“I don’t have a service dog at the moment,” the student said. “It’s something I began exploring a year and a half, two years ago.”
A letter verified by her doctor at greenwich adolescent medicine in Greenwich, CT listed reasons for how a service dog would benefit the student. These include fetching ice packs and medications, which the student says would be “particularly helpful at night during the two hours I rotate ice packs on my joints,” as well as juice packs during episodes of low blood sugar.
The student also states that a dog would “provide emotional support, because sometimes I get frustrated and a little depressed having to live in constant pain every day.” Her Rheumatologist from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York added that “walking a dog would be a good low impact exercise for [her]” and that a dog can “also alert patients to hypoglycemia, which could be very helpful.”
“I don’t have a service dog at the moment,” the student said. “It’s something I began exploring a year and a half, two years ago. My parents initially wanted me to hold off because there were still some medications that we had not tried that could work. I’ve been on those for a while now and it became evident that they weren’t making that much of a difference. In fact, aspects of my condition were getting worse.”
After doing independent research on the topic, she began her request for a service dog on Feb. 15, 2016, first reaching out to Jenifer Campbell, director of Residential Life. The student sent an email to Vickki Massy, associate director of Housing Operations of Residential Life, the next day, saying, “Upon speaking with Ms. Campbell, my question was quickly dismissed when she said ‘we do not provide for service animals.'”
Massy said she would open the discussion with Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Lincoln Center, via email on Feb. 22. After months of what the student said was very little progress, she scheduled an in-person meeting with Eldredge and Massy on May 5.
When asked about the university’s policy on service dogs, Campbell stated in an email, “I apologize, I am not able to speak on the record about this matter.” Mary Byrnes, director of Disability Services, also declined to comment when asked the same question over email.
Title III of the ADA defines a service animal “as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
At the May 5 meeting, the student said she provided both Massy and Eldredge with documentation of her disability, including three separate signed letters from her doctors verifying her medical history and ways in which a service dog would benefit her. In her initial letter to Eldredge, she said that her “disease does substantially limit one or more life activities,” citing the language in the ADA and that she was “perfectly comfortable educating and spreading awareness [of her] condition.”
Title III of the ADA defines a service animal “as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability,” and that “the work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
Among the potential functions of a service dog that the HUD Notice lists are: providing protection or rescue assistance, fetching items, alerting persons to impending seizures or providing emotional support to persons with disabilities “who have a disability-related need for such support.”
A National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) document clarifies that the Department of Justice (DOJ) does not consider “emotional support, comfort, or companionship animals,” as service animals under the ADA and ADA Amendment Acts (ADAAA).
Despite the student believing her request fell within ADA and HUD guidelines, her request for a service dog was denied at the meeting on May 5, 2016. Later that day, she emailed Eldredge again, claiming that he had misinterpreted the sections of the ADA that she had provided. He agreed to meet again, stating, “I want to reopen the decision based on the conversation we had yesterday,” and that he would prefer to hold off on providing a formal, written denial until after they spoke again.
An official document (FHEO-2013-01) from HUD, which cites the ADA, asks two questions to determine if a housing provider is required to modify or provide an exception to a no pets rule or policy: 1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability? and 2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? When the answer to both questions is yes, “a person with a disability is permitted to live with and use an assistance animal(s) in all areas of the premise where persons are normally allowed to go.”
According to the student, she and Eldredge met again on May 9, at which point she says that he requested further information about her medical condition.
The HUD document says “A housing provider also may not ask an applicant or tenant to provide access to medical records or medical providers or provide detailed or extensive information or documentation of a person’s physical or mental impairments.”
She said that at some point between then and the end of May, Eldredge convened a committee to discuss her case and shared her medical information without her consent with those members. Eldredge denied her request again at the end of May 2016, according to the student.
On June 13, her mother sent an email to Eldredge, requesting that the student’s rheumatologist be able to speak to him or the appropriate medical personnel at Fordham, for her daughter to meet again with Eldredge or the entire committee, and for a letter from her therapist to be considered in their evaluation process. Eldredge responded on July 5, agreeing to meet with the student and speak to her doctor.
[Eldredge] said in an email, “I am responsible for making the decision on [the student’s] request, and you are correct that I informed you on August 3 that I have denied the request.”
The student’s mother took part in an additional discussion on Aug 3. She said in an email to Eldredge “despite all of [the student’s] doctors’ notes and descriptions of why [she] is in need of a service/emotional support dog, some, but not all, of Fordham’s Representatives have rejected the view of her medical professionals and have denied [the student’s] request for such animal.”
The next day, Eldredge responded, confirming this decision. He said in an email, “I am responsible for making the decision on [the student’s] request, and you are correct that I informed you on August 3 that I have denied the request.”
On Aug. 4, the Department of Education opened an investigation after the student sent them Eldredge’s written rejection. It informed Fordham University of the case on Aug. 16. In a letter, a compliance team member from the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights wrote, “OCR determined that this allegation is appropriate for investigation.” It cited Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, claiming that it had jurisdictional authority to investigate the complaint, since the “University is a recipient of financial assistance from the Department.”
On Oct. 24, Mary Kate O’Neal, an attorney at the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, sent an email to the student stating, “I just spoke to the attorney from Fordham. They are willing to credit your account for [$]5,000. This is their best offer.”
The student rejected the offer stating, “They tried to offer me money, but it wasn’t a lot so I said no.” She explained, “It seems as though their intention is they’re trying to pay me to keep quiet and not get a service dog and not talk about this to anyone, but that is not my intention.” Because the administration declined to comment on the matter, The Observer could not clarify the intent of this financial offer.
On Dec. 4, The Observer contacted Eldredge regarding the student’s request, but he also declined to comment on the matter.
When asked for a statement from the university, Bob Howe, senior director of communications for Fordham, said that “[the student’s] request is being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights. The University won’t issue any statements while the investigation is underway.”
Since the two parties have not reached a resolution, the investigation is currently open with a determination expected on Jan. 31. The Observer will reach out to all parties involved after that date for further comments.
UPDATE: The original article stated that the determination was expected on Jan. 21. It has been updated to state that the determination will occur on Jan. 31.