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U.S. sues university for banning dog from student housing

OMAHA, Neb (Reuters) - Butch the dog is trained to put his front paws on Brittany Hamilton's shoulders to help calm her when she suffers a panic attack.

But Butch wasn't welcome at the University of Nebraska at Kearney's student housing when Hamilton arrived for classes, so now the U.S. government is suing the central Nebraska campus of 6,500 students for alleged violations of the federal Fair Housing Act.

The case is scheduled for trial in federal court in Lincoln early next year.

Hamilton suffers from depression and anxiety that interferes with her ability to sleep and causes attacks that impair her breathing, according to the complaint. A therapy dog was prescribed and Hamilton acquired Butch, a 4-pound miniature pinscher.

A year later, Hamilton enrolled at the university and signed a lease to live in unfurnished, school-owned apartment-style housing a mile from campus. She made three requests in the fall of 2010 to live with Butch because of her disability, the complaint said. Each was denied.

University officials said the request would be granted only if Hamilton could provide documentation from her doctor that Butch had been trained and certified as a service animal as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hamilton's mother trained Butch. When Hamilton has an anxiety attack, Butch's shoulder hugs help her concentrate and distract her from the anxiety, according to the lawsuit.

Christy Horn, the campus compliance officer, considered Butch a pet, not a service animal, and warned a colleague that Hamilton's request could open "a big can of worms," according to the complaint.

"In essence, anyone can have their doctor say they are anxious and need to have their dog, cat, snake, or monkey, etc.," Horn wrote Cheryl Bressington, the campus affirmative action coordinator, according to the complaint.

Students living in university housing generally are not permitted to have pets other than fish. Two exceptions are disabled students who require a service animal, and graduate students who serve as housing directors.

Bressington rejected Hamilton's request to accommodate Butch, saying the school was not required to comply with the Fair Housing Act.

Hamilton eventually withdrew from classes and moved out of the university apartment. She filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which filed the complaint November 23, 2011. The university decided to resolve the issue in federal court.

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)

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