Colorado lawsuit over companion animals settles for $1M

DENVER — A Colorado housing authority accused of violating the federal rights of tenants with disabilities by charging a fee for companion animals has settled a lawsuit for nearly $1 million.

The agreement followed a three-year fight over the Meeker Housing Authority’s efforts to tighten restrictions on keeping pets at the northwestern Colorado property, a federally subsidized apartment building for families. Attorneys said the agency refused to make exceptions for two tenants whose cats and dog were recommended by doctors to cope with depression and anxiety.

“Housing is one of our basic needs, and when that’s taken away from people who do not have a safety net, there’s nowhere for them to go,” said Siddhartha Rathod, the tenants’ attorney.

Attorneys for the Meeker Housing Authority did not return messages seeking comment.

Colorado District Court Judge William J. Martinez ruled in February that the creation of a $300 fee and the denial of requests for an exception by the tenants with disabilities violated federal law preventing discrimination against people with disabilities. Other claims were set to be decided by a jury in early May until the parties began settlement talks.

Under the agreement, the plaintiffs will receive $950,000 from the Meeker Housing Authority. They previously settled with the town of Meeker for $50,000, attorneys said.

One of the affected tenants, 23-year-old A.J. White, has severe depression and often refused to get out of bed until he and his father adopted two cats named Genki and Haim.

A.J. White has held a job as a cashier for five years and graduated high school but medication can exacerbate his depression and anxiety, said his father, Lonnie White. The cats changed everything.

“The cats give him routine, give him purpose, give him happiness,” Lonnie White said. “When he’s feeling down, the first ones to the rescue are the cats. He feels like, ‘If they think I’m lovable, then I’m lovable.’”