Point — Counterpoint: Looking at Support Animals From Different Viewpoints


 Debbi Conrad  |    August 06, 2014
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The federal Fair Housing Act requires landlords, condominium associations and other housing providers to make reasonable accommodations in their rules, policies, practices or services when needed to provide persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use or enjoy a dwelling. Most controversial among the reasonable accommodations requested are the emotional support animals. On the flip side, a large number of the complaints received by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) each year pertain to persons with disabilities and — you guessed it — support animals. This conversation looks at three assistance animal stories taken from HUD discrimination charges and case law.

National service animal registry dog for PTSD 

The woman suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She is legally blind and has mobility problems with her back, such that she sometimes requires the use of a walker. She has been receiving Social Security Income since 1984. In 2012, she went to see an affordable three-unit residential rental property in St. Cloud, Minn., that had a “no pet” policy. The landlord did not live at the property. 

The woman brought her constant companion, a 19-pound dog that she had had for approximately four years, with her to see the available unit. The dog was registered with the National Service Animal Registry, which provided her with a support animal certificate, identification tags and a pouch for the dog to wear that identifies the dog as a support animal. Her physician wrote a letter, stating in relevant part, “She has a history of depression and PTSD which has been treated adequately. Part of her treatment for her depression and PTSD is her dog. I think this is medically in her best interest to have a pet ....” 

The landlord took one look at the dog and immediately refused to show her the property, despite her offering of the dog’s tags and the doctor’s letter. He insisted there were “no pets” allowed and that he would not be “strong-armed” and/or “swindled” into renting to her and her dog. The woman filed a complaint with the HUD, which investigated and filed discrimination charges against the landlord in September 2013.

Point: The woman was faced with a landlord who refused to even discuss a reasonable accommodation. By filing a complaint with the HUD she did not have to pay an attorney and the HUD can enjoin the landlord from doing this to others, award actual damages, force him to pay a civil penalty ($16,000 sought in the complaint) and impose any other appropriate relief.

Counterpoint: The landlord resents interference by the woman and the government in overriding his rules, namely, no pets for anybody. If the other tenants would see her with her dog, they may feel it is not fair for her to have a dog when they cannot.

Gulf War veteran’s emotional support dog

In 2011, the HUD filed a complaint against a Park City, Utah condominium association and the property management company managing the association, which allegedly refused to accommodate a Gulf War veteran suffering from an agitated form of depression. The veteran had an emotional support Labradoodle because of that disability and was renting a unit in the condominium. 

The condo association had a 10-step written policy for processing requests for service animals. For emotional support animals, the policy required a letter from a licensed mental health professional verifying the disability, explaining how the animal serves as an accommodation, and how the need for the animal relates to the person’s use and enjoyment of the unit. In addition, a medical release was required, authorizing the physician to speak to an association representative and allowing the association to obtain the patient’s confidential medical records. All owners of service and emotional support animals were to comply with the condominium pet policy, provide proof of liability insurance coverage, register the pet with the association, and pay a $150 fee. When the property manager learned the veteran had the Labradoodle, he asked the veteran to comply with the process.

The veteran submitted a prescription from a VA doctor and a letter from a psychotherapist. He secured the liability insurance, but refused to give access to his private medical information or pay the $150 fee. The association then levied $200 in fines against the condo owners who were his landlords because of the presence of the support dog. The condo owners, in turn, refused to renew his lease unless he paid the fee and fines. The vet and his dog moved out and filed a complaint with the HUD.

Point: The veteran objects that being asked to share private medical information and records with the association board members, who are his neighbors, is unreasonable and is an invasion of privacy.

Point: The Fair Housing Act prohibits associations from charging such fees and fines and requiring the disabled to obtain liability insurance or provide medical records.

Counterpoint: The condominium association had written policies for pets and service animals, and the veteran did not fully comply. The bylaws and rules should be followed.

Another concern: In those condominiums where there are no pets, unit owners protest that they bought their units because there were to be no pets and they believe they have the right to enjoy a living environment with no animals.

West Virginia mobile home park owners deny assistance animal 

A mobile home resident signed a lease in 2004 with a mobile home park. The lease stated, “no dogs or outside pets permitted, except for the handicap impaired.” In 2009, the resident and and his family were victims of a home invasion in which he was shot in the stomach. As result, he had difficulty sleeping, spent nights constantly checking and rechecking doors and windows, and experienced severe anxiety. 

In 2012, the resident asked the 95-lot mobile home community to waive its “no pets” policy and allow him to keep an emotional support dog that would help him to sleep. Although the resident submitted a formal written request along with a doctor’s note attesting to his need for the dog, the community declined his requests and attempted eviction because of the emotional support dog. When these efforts did not succeed, the community attempted to evict him when his rent was late for a couple of weeks, even though other park residents with similar or prolonged delinquencies were not sued for eviction. The second eviction action was also dismissed when the past due rent was tendered.

Point: The mobile home community/landlord does not believe that the resident has a disability and thinks that the resident is attempting to scam the community/landlord. The landlord believes it is too easy to meet the minimum standard for establishing a disability and the need for a support animal. 

Counterpoint: You don’t have to show your prescription or have a doctor’s excuse to use a hearing aid or a walking cane, so you should not be required to prove the need for other assistive measures. Assistance animals provide persons with disabilities the stability needed to function on a daily basis; in this case, to lessen anxiety in order to sleep at night.

Obviously, competing interests and rights are present on all sides of this situation, and the balancing act used to resolve these situations is not perfect. The vital importance of assistance animals in reducing barriers, promoting independence and improving the quality of life for people with disabilities in the home is protected under federal law. The rights of property owners to maintain the quality of the premises and the rights of residents to enjoy their homes and what they perceive as equal treatment, however, are frequently impacted by the process.

What is clear

The HUD is pursuing fair housing cases where owners refuse to accept emotional support animals. 

  • The Utah condominium was on the right track. Having an attorney assist in developing a written policy outlining the process for entertaining and responding to requests for assistance animals and other reasonable accommodations is well-advised and should protect the community from liability if the standards comply with the law and the process is always followed and applied uniformly. 
  • Under current law, landlords, property managers, condominium associations and other homeowners associations should become familiar with the requirements for reasonable accommodations. They would be wise to educate residents by referencing the possibility of reasonable accommodation exceptions in their documentation and take measures to promote understanding and lessen acrimony.
  • Support animals are not the same as specially trained service animals permitted under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and state and local government activities. The federal Fair Housing Act requires reasonable accommodations in housing. The standards are very different. 
  • Pet restrictions cannot be used to deny or limit housing to people with disabilities who require the use of an assistance animal because of their disability. 

Resources

Debbi Conrad is Senior Attorney and Director of Legal Affairs for the WRA.
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