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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Univ. of Neb. at Kearney - 940 F. Supp. 2d 974 (D. Neb. 2013)

Rule:

"Residence" is not defined by the Fair Housing Act (FHA). When a word is not defined by statute, a court normally construes it in accord with its ordinary or natural meaning. 

Facts:

The United States, as plaintiff, sued on behalf of Brittany Hamilton, a student at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (UNK). A therapy dog had been prescribed for Hamilton and was trained to respond to her anxiety attacks. After Hamilton enrolled to attend UNK for the fall semester in 2010, she signed a lease to live at University Heights, one of UNK's student housing facilities. But Hamilton's requests to live with her dog were denied, based on UNK's no-pets policy for student housing. After a few weeks, Hamilton withdrew from her classes and moved out of University Heights. The United States filed suit on Hamilton's behalf, alleging that UNK's conduct in denying Hamilton's request for an accommodation violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA). UNK filed a motion for summary judgment.

Issue:

Was the University of Nebraska’s student housing a “dwelling” within the meaning of the FHA?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The court denied UNK's motion for summary judgment. UNK argued that Congress did not intend for educational housing to be a "dwelling" because that would alter how colleges and universities operate. For instance, segregating housing on the basis of gender might be affected. Essentially, UNK argued exhibiting a parade of horribles that could purportedly ensue if UNK was subjected to the FHA. The court was not persuaded that UNK's predictions, in their particulars, were realistic. But even if they were, that would not permit the court to misconstrue the word "dwelling" to avoid them. If the FHA could be read to exclude university housing, then that reading could not depend on the understanding of the word "dwelling" that UNK urged on the court. If colleges and universities needed to be exempted from the scope of the statutory language, they were free to ask Congress to amend the statute, or petition the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to promulgate new regulations. In the meantime, the court applied the statute as written and as authoritatively construed by HUD. Based on the statute, UNK's student housing facilities were clearly "dwellings" within the meaning of the FHA.

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