California Landlord to Pay $88,000 Settlement in Seeing-Eye Dog Suit

Project Sentinel 
430 Sherman Ave., Suite 308
Palo Alto, CA 94306

Stacie Speedling (800)339-6043, ext.104

For immediate release 

(PALO ALTO, Calif., Jan. 22, 2003) -- On December 11, 2002, a settlement was reached in which the owner of an eight-unit apartment building at 168 Santa Clara Avenue in San Bruno, CA has agreed to pay $88,000 to resolve a fair housing lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged that the apartment owner, Simin Nejat, refused to rent an apartment to Linda and Alfred Gagne because Mrs. Gagne is blind and uses a guide dog. Despite repeated efforts by the Gagnes and by a representative from “Guide Dogs for the Blind” to explain that the guide dog was a service animal and not a pet, the owner refused to allow the guide dog.

The undisputed evidence established that the landlord violated the federal Fair Housing Act as well as related state laws, which make it unlawful to discriminate in the rental of a dwelling because of a disability. The Act also makes it unlawful to refuse to rent to someone because they use a service animal. Mrs. Gagne will receive the first payment in her settlement by January 24, 2003.

Mrs. Gagne responded to a rental advertisement and spoke with the owner, Ms. Nejat, who directed her to the Santa Clara Avenue Apartments. Upon viewing the unit and determining that it met their needs, the Gagnes decided to apply to rent. They contacted Ms. Nejat and made arrangements to meet for the first time. The Gagnes, along with Mrs. Gagne’s specially trained harnessed guide dog named Wyoming, met with Ms. Nejat to fill out an application for the apartment. Upon meeting Wyoming, Ms. Nejat told the Gagnes that she would not rent to them because she enforced a strict no-pets policy. Mrs. Gagne explained that Wyoming was in fact a guide dog assisting her because she is blind. After numerous attempts by both the Gagnes and a counselor at Guide Dogs for the Blind to educate Ms. Nejat about the fair housing laws in relation to disability discrimination, Ms. Nejat still refused to process a rental application for the Gagnes.

Mrs. Gagne felt victimized by Ms. Nejat’s refusal to rent to them because she was blind and used a seeing-eye dog, so she contacted Project Sentinel, a non-profit fair housing agency that investigates housing discrimination. Mrs. Gagne described her experience and in response to Mrs. Gagne’s complaint, Project Sentinel conducted an investigation of the rental practices at the Santa Clara Avenue Apartments. Project Sentinel used testers – people posing as prospective tenants - to contact Ms. Nejat. When a tester who used a guide dog contacted Ms. Nejat, she said that no pets were allowed and she would not make any exceptions for seeing-eye dogs. Ms. Nejat told two testers without guide dogs that an apartment was available immediately. Project Sentinel referred Mrs. Gagne’s case to the Law Offices of Brancart and Brancart for litigation and a settlement was reached with the landlord.

Project Sentinel is a non-profit fair housing agency in Palo Alto, CA that investigates complaints of housing discrimination in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Stanislaus Counties. Project Sentinel also provides landlord-tenant counseling, mediation services, mortgage default counseling and a victim-offender program. Project Sentinel can be reached at (415) H-O-U-S-I-N-G or (800)339-6043.