GV faces lawsuit over guinea pig

Lizzy Balboa

A Grand Valley State University student is taking legal action against the institution for rejecting her request to keep a guinea pig in her on-campus residence, but university officials deny having been served a lawsuit at this time.

“We have not received notification of the lawsuit,” said Dottie Barnes, communications specialist in News and Information Services. “It has not reached Grand Valley yet.”

However, a legal notice for the case confirms that GVSU student Kendra Velzen, 28, and the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan have formally filed a complaint against GVSU and a few of its administrators for violating the federal Fair Housing Act, Rehabilitation Act and Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.

According to the filed complaint, Velzen requested to keep her “companion animal” guinea pig in her Calder apartment — despite GVSU Housing and Residence Life policy allowing only non-predatory fish and approved service animals on campus — at the recommendation of her therapist to help her cope with depression and a severe heart condition.

Velzen is not alone in requesting to keep pets in the dormitories for health purposes.

“It’s not that unusual,” said Andy Beachnau, director of Housing and Health Services and a defendant in the case. “Usually we respond to them in a way that’s supportive of their academic success.”

However, the complaint reported that the university denied Velzen’s appeal three times — despite her presenting a prescription from her therapist — before allowing her to keep the pet temporarily.

Even though Velzen claims GVSU rejected her request, university officials report that they conceded in allowing the guinea pig to live in the dorm since October 2011.

“As you know, our housing contract stipulates that only service animals are permitted,” said Matt McLogan, vice president of University Relations. “Ms. Velzen asked the university to make an exception in her case, and we did so … In allowing this exception to our rule about pets, we requested that Ms. Velzen follow common-sense precaution by keeping the rodent in her room and that she not take it with her to class, the dining hall or other common areas of the campus.”

University officials could not comment on the terms of the lawsuit, for which they have not yet received documents, but they expressed displeasure in the thought of facing legal action after allegedly making the exception at the student’s request.

“We are disappointed that Ms. Velzen’s lawyers filed a lawsuit rather than pursue resolution of the matter through the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which the university had agreed to do,” McLogan said.

Velzen declined to comment on the lawsuit, but Elizabeth Stoddard of the FHC said the nonprofit organization is acting as a plaintiff in the case to make sure future students are accommodated more easily than Velzen was.

“The process by which she was finally able to attain the guinea pig was not an amenable process and it was not an amicable process,” Stoddard said.

University officials said they will issue further comments after receiving notification of the lawsuit’s legitimacy.

The plaintiffs filed the complaint on March 30, and the case has since been assigned to Judge Robert Holmes Bell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Velzen’s attorney, Stephen Dane, issued proposed summons for the case on Tuesday, but these have not yet been served to the potential defendants, who are listed in the civil docket as: Grand Valley State University; Grand Valley State University’s Board of Regents; Andy Beachnau, director of housing and health services; Brenda Mitchner, associate director of housing and residence life-operations; Leena Karsan, living center director of Niemeyer; and Kathleen Vanderveen, director of disability support services.

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