An Iraq war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has settled his dispute with a Harris County real estate leasing agency that refused to allow him to move into one of their properties with a service dog.
The lawsuit was filed by Sgt. Derek Kolb, who served as an Army infantryman in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005 and 2006. The leasing agency rejected two dogs he had been partnered with for treatment of his PTSD after an employee said they looked “aggressive.” Both dogs had been trained by Train a Dog, Save a Warrior (TADSAW), which works with shelter dogs.
Sgt. Kolb was represented pro bono by Winston & Strawn LLP Houston partner Tyler VanHoutan and associate Luke Culpepper, and attorneys Christopher P. McGreal and Brian East of Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group for Texans with disabilities.
“What happened to Sgt. Kolb should never have happened to anyone, but the fact that it happened to a veteran made it particularly egregious,” said Mr. VanHoutan. “We are grateful that the settlement included training that should prevent the next person in his position from experiencing what he went through.”
According to the lawsuit, a leasing agent rejected Sgt. Kolb’s first service dog, a husky mix named Balto, after she saw a photo of the dog and said he looked like an “aggressive breed.” The leasing agency similarly rejected a second dog, a greyhound mix named Hank, because that dog “also looked aggressive,” according to Sgt. Kolb’s December 2013 complaint filed in court.
The settlement between Sgt. Kolb and the leasing agency requires agency employees to undergo training on the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Chapter 121 of the Texas Human Resource Code, with a particular emphasis on service animals. The leasing agency also agreed to receive training on the needs of U.S. veterans.
“Living with PTSD is a daily challenge, and Hank has helped bring me back from the brink many times,” said Sgt. Kolb. “Businesses need to understand that service dogs like Hank and Balto aren’t pets. And even though the injuries I and others with PTSD suffer from aren’t visible to the naked eye, it doesn’t make them any less real.”
Sgt. Kolb, 30, suffered traumatic brain and leg injuries from a roadside bomb in September 2005. Medically retired from the U.S. Army, he received 10 awards for his service, including the Bronze Star.
His pervasive PTSD, however, made his life almost unbearable. Sgt. Kolb isolated himself from his friends and family, suffered anxiety and frequently had intrusive thoughts, according to the lawsuit. He was briefly homeless before moving into Camp Hope, a transitional living facility for homeless vets with PTSD, where he learned about the possibility of having a service dog and living independently.
When the leasing agency rejected his service dogs, Sgt. Kolb eventually found another leasing agency that was able to find him a place to live. However, the rent he paid was $100 a month more than he would have paid for the properties the original agency found for him, according to the lawsuit.
Mr. McGreal said the lawsuit should also help raise awareness of veterans and others suffering from PTSD.
“This issue has become more pressing as a growing number of veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan,” added Mr. McGreal. “Ensuring they have access to service dogs – and homes to live in – is one of the many things we should be doing to honor their sacrifice.”