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Emotional Support / Companion Animals – Are People Claiming Disabilities to Get Around Pet Restrictions?

In the past 5 years, community living associations, such as condominiums, co-operatives and homeowner associations, are increasingly being inundated with requests for accommodations for emotional support and companion animals.  Many board members and co-owners feel that their neighbors are claiming a disability simply to get around pet restrictions in their communities.

Unlike service animals, which are regulated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) where the law is strongly established, emotional support and companion animals are governed by the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”).  Service animals are trained and licensed.  Emotional support and companion animals are not trained or licensed and you can simply pay a flat fee to get a license that qualifies an animal as an emotional support animal.

Although a request for having a service animal and an emotional support animal both surround a claim of disability, a service animal typically deals with a known or visible disability such as a Seeing Eye Dog or Hearing Dog. A request for an emotional support animal deals with unseen disabilities such as emotional and/or mental suffering.  That is wherein the difficulties lie with emotional support animal requests.

An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides a therapeutic benefit to an individual designated with a mental, psychiatric or emotional disability, such as, for example, depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks or anxiety. While only dogs and miniature horses can be officially designated as service animals, emotional support animals can also be cats and other animals, such as snakes, birds, pigs, spiders, as prescribed by a physician or other medical professional.  An emotional support animal does not require specific training, so long as, the presence of the animal mitigates the effects of the disability and the owner of the animal has a verifiable disability as defined by the Fair Housing Act.

Not all denials of requests for emotional support animals will be deemed discrimination.  Generally, a simple pet restriction in the governing documents is not discrimination itself.  The FHA defines discrimination as including “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a disabled] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” 42 U.S.C. §3604(f)(3) (B). Therefore, the individual requesting an emotional support animal must establish his or her disability, and that the emotional support animal is necessary and reasonable to afford individuals with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. 42 U.S.C. §3604(f)(3)(B).  The reasonable requirement limits accommodations to those that do not impose an “undue hardship” by causing excessive financial burdens to the homeowner or condominium association or by fundamentally altering the nature of the subdivision or condominium project.

In most instances, a member of the Co-operative, Homeowner Association or Condominium Association, who is faced with a pet restriction in the governing documents, will request an accommodation to be able to keep the pet.  Normally, the member will request the accommodation in writing and will include a letter from their doctor.  The doctor’s letter does not need to be notarized, as long as, the letter is on the doctor’s stationary.  The letter does not need to state the member’s disability but only that the person is disabled and the life functions that are limited by the disability.  However, the doctor must explain why the requested accommodation is necessary and the member must demonstrate a relationship between his or her ability to function and the companionship of the animal.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken the position that if an animal qualifies as a “support” or “assistance” animal, an across-the-board breed prohibition would not stand up.  An association can prohibit vicious animals from being kept as emotional support animals, but only on a case-by-case basis as to the specific animal, and not generally based on the breed.  A recent Florida District Court also held that a condominium association could not deny a member’s request for an emotional support animal simply on the basis that there is a local dangerous breed ordinance since the FHA supersedes local ordinances.

No government agency keeps track of such figures, but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. Last year, it registered eleven thousand!

Because of services that allow individuals to simply pay a flat fee to get a license that qualifies the animals as an emotional support animal and, based on the above, associations should take the initiative in adopting emotional support animal policies and procedures before the next request.   For example, once a person has been allowed an emotional support or companion animal, the association may, within a reasonable time from the original accommodation, request the member to provide a letter from his or her doctor re-certifying their need for an emotional support animal.

The failure to properly accommodate a disabled person’s request can lead to an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit, which can award attorney’s fees and costs to the disabled person. The Association can avoid pitfalls but must remember that a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act is a highly fact-specific analysis and must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and that associations can avoid pitfalls by seeking the assistance of its professionals when in receipt of such a request.

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Kevin Hirzel is the Managing Member of Hirzel Law, PLC. Hirzel Law has offices in Farmington, Grand Rapids, and Traverse City, Michigan with a fourth office location in Chicago, Illinois. Mr. Hirzel focuses his practice on condominium law, homeowners association law, and real estate law. He is a fellow in the College of Community Association Lawyers (“CCAL”), a prestigious designation given to less than 175 attorneys in the country. Mr. Hirzel formerly served on the CCAL National Board of Governors and is a former member of the Community Associations Institute’s (“CAI”) Board of Trustees, an international organization with over 40,000 members worldwide that is dedicated to improving community associations. Mr. Hirzel has been recognized as a Leading Lawyer in Michigan by Leading Lawyers, a distinction earned by fewer than 5% of all lawyers licensed in Michigan. He has been named a Michigan “Rising Star” in real estate law by Super Lawyers Magazine, a designation is given to no more than 2.5% of the attorneys in Michigan each year. Mr. Hirzel was also named as a “Go-To-Lawyer” in condominium and real estate law by Michigan Lawyer’s Weekly. Hirzel Law was also voted the best law firm in Metro Detroit in the Detroit Free Press Best of the Best awards. He is the Co-Chairman of the State Bar of Michigan’s Real Property Law Section Committee for Condominiums, PUDs & Cooperatives. Mr. Hirzel has authored numerous articles on community association law for publications such as the Michigan Community Association News, Michigan Real Property Review, Macomb County Bar Briefs and the Washington Post. He is also the author of the first and second editions of “Hirzel’s Handbook: How to operate a Michigan Condo or HOA”, which is available for purchase on Mr. Hirzel has been interviewed on community association legal issues by various media outlets throughout the country, such as CBS, CNBC, Common Ground Magazine, Community Association Management Insider, the Dan Abrams Show on SiriusXM Radio, the Detroit News, Dr. Drew Midday Live on KABC Radio, Fox Business News, Fox News,, the Law & Crime Network, Michigan Lawyer’s Weekly, NPR, WWJ News Radio and WXYZ. Mr. Hirzel is a dynamic speaker and frequently lectures on community association law throughout Michigan, as well as nationally at the CAI National Law Seminar, and is a two-time winner of the best manuscript award at the CAI National Law Seminar.

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