Pitt student alleges University housing discrimination

By Benjamin Nigrosh, Staff Writer

A Pitt student filed a housing discrimination complaint on September 23 with the federal government, claiming their request for an emotional support dog for their dorm room was subject to “invasive requirements and obstacles as a deterrent” by the University.

Although the student received approval from the University on September 25 to let their emotional support dog live with them in their dorm, the student is pressing forward with the complaint against Pitt. The complaint — which was jointly filed with the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, a local non-profit that focuses on housing discrimination cases in western Pennsylvania — is currently being processed by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It felt like, instead of looking for a reason to grant it, [Pitt was] looking for a reason to deny it,” the student, who requested anonymity due to privacy concerns, said in an interview.

The student had submitted a copy of Pitt’s Emotional Support Animal Request form as well as a Housing/Dining Accommodation Request form to the University’s Office of Disability Resources and Services in late July, the complaint said. They also provided a letter from a licensed mental health counselor that verified the need for the accommodation.

“I initially had a letter from my therapist briefly going over what it was, how the dog helps me go about my day-to-day, and that was what I understood as being sufficient enough to qualify,” the student said.

But the complaint said DRS Director Leigh Culley told the student in an in-person meeting in early September that the “third-party verification didn’t provide the required nexus.”

“She contacted my therapist again, and then she asked for another letter being more explicit about how the dog helps, and claimed that it didn’t have a diagnosis in the first one when it clearly does say both of the things,” the student said. “The environment … did come off as hostile and disbelieving.”

University spokesperson Kevin Zwick declined to comment on the meeting between the student and Culley, or what she requested of the student.

While housing providers are permitted under the federal Fair Housing Act to create their own accommodation forms for tenants, the law states that a tenant requesting an emotional support animal only needs a medical provider’s recommendation to receive the accommodation.

FHP Program Director Megan Confer-Hammond described several questions on Pitt’s Housing/Dining Accommodation Request Medical Verification form as invasive. She pointed to one question, “Is the impact of the disability life threatening if the accommodation request is not met?” as problematic.

“My quality of life versus my death is not the bar that accommodations are met with,” Confer-Hammond said. “If my bar is looking at granting these requests only if I would die if not, then we have a massive middle ground of students with various disabilities who wouldn’t have their requests met because it doesn’t meet the ultimate bar.”

According to the complaint, Culley denied the student’s accommodation request in a Sept. 10 letter. She said the documentation submitted did not “establish” the need for an emotional support animal as a reasonable accommodation.

The student said the denial could seem “small” to other people, but was very disappointing to them.

“How do you deal with them being like ‘You can’t have this thing that you know helps you. We’ve decided that this does not help you, and so we won’t allow it,’” the student said.

Confer-Hammond said this is an example of the University asking for more information than it is allowed to, possibly in violation of the FHA.

“They are not your family member, they are not your doctor, they are in no way required to know what your treatment is, what your interaction with your therapist is like, what your conversations consist of,” Confer-Hammond said. “Getting into the severity and duration is much more than a landlord, including a university, is obligated to know.”

Zwick declined to comment on Confer-Hammond’s statements.

According to the student, DRS approved their accommodation request once the student’s therapist submitted the longer explanation of the disability.

Zwick said the University aims to create an inclusive environment where all students have access to equal opportunities.

“Requests for accommodation on the basis of disability are evaluated through a well-established interactive process, which includes a discussion with the student and review of medical documentation, as appropriate,” Zwick said.

But the student said the University’s actions contradict themselves — hosting a variety of events in October for Mental Health Awareness Month, but putting up barriers when they tried to request a reasonable accommodation to ensure their own mental health.

“It was definitely frustrating saying that optically we are a University that cares about mental health, but logistically and policy-wise, we are not always on the side of mental health awareness,” the student said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the University has approved the student’s request to live with an emotional support dog on campus. It has also been updated to clarify the dates when the complaint was filed as well as when the University approved the student’s request.