Housing discrimination case involving emotional-support dog set for trial; landlords claim tenant posed a threat

Defendants in a housing discrimination lawsuit involving a man with an emotional-support dog claim the man would have posed a threat and are questioning his status as a disabled veteran.

“The whole picture of him being a disabled veteran or disabled as a result of military service appears to be inaccurate,” said attorney Bruce Hanson, who represents the landlords in the case. “We don’t have any documents because the city and he refused to provide documents.”

The City of Lawrence filed the lawsuit last year claiming that the landlords, Lyndon and Kathi Mullis, of Baldwin City, discriminated against Christopher Evans due to his disability and his use of an emotional-support dog. Evans is identified in the suit as a military veteran. At issue is whether the landlords violated a local ordinance and federal fair housing law when they allegedly turned Evans away based on their pet policy for Ashbury Townhomes, 925 E. 14th St.

Attorney David Brown, who represents the city, said the act in itself was discrimination and therefore violated city ordinance, state laws and federal laws protecting the disabled. He said the document request and other claims being made against Evans cannot retroactively justify those actions.

“The landlords said no because he had a dog,” Brown said. “That was the end of the discussion; it lasted two minutes. It may very well have been, frankly, that if they had accepted the application and looked into Mr. Evans’ background, they may have determined that he wasn’t eligible to rent from them for a variety of other reasons, but they did not do that.”

The landlords have denied that such discrimination occurred and in December Hanson requested a host of documents, such as Evans’ army, medical, drug test and criminal records. The city subsequently filed a request for protection from the document request, claiming it was “overly burdensome” and intended as harassment.

In a response filed Monday, the defendant landlords reiterated the need for documents. Hanson said all the claims need documentary evidence and also notes that Evans signed an authorization to release records to the city.

“All the facts tie to documents you need to either disapprove his claims that he’s a disabled veteran, etc., etc., or to establish an affirmative defense, which ends the case,” Hanson said. “They all need actual documentary evidence; that’s the best evidence.”

The response filed Monday also claims that both Evans and the dog would have threatened the safety of fellow tenants. It alleges that Evans has a violent criminal record and that the unit he was interested in renting shared an enclosed courtyard with a tenant with a mental illness that “includes a serious fear of large dogs,” resulting in a health risk for that tenant.

“What the Mullises have to do here now that they know all this is what they are doing,” Hanson said. “They have to stand up for their existing tenants; they have to defend their tenants.”

Regarding the records request, Brown said various privacy laws cover those records and that the city doesn’t have control of them. He said arguments regarding Evans’ background are irrelevant, as the discrimination happened in the initial two-minute conversation.

“It gets to things that might have happened later in the rental process, but under the circumstances of this case we never got that far because the landlord discriminated first,” Brown said.

The original lawsuit was filed Nov. 8 in Douglas County District Court by the City of Lawrence Human Relations Commission, and is seeking damages of more than $75,000, as well as reimbursement of court costs and attorney fees. The subsequent counterclaim filed by the landlords claims an abuse of process by the city and seeks $50,000 of damages, as well as reimbursement of other costs and attorney fees.

The city’s nine-member Human Relations Commission has the ability to investigate, rule upon and resolve discrimination complaints, and the lawsuit states that conciliation efforts to resolve Evans’ dispute were attempted but failed.

The trial in the lawsuit is scheduled for 9 a.m. Dec. 13 in Douglas County District Court.