WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans housing discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including the refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when they’re necessary to provide individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home at the community.
The reasonable accommodation provisions come into play whenever an individual with a disability wants to use an assistance animal in communities that either prohibit or impose restrictions or conditions on pets at the community. Like all reasonable accommodation requests, the determination of whether an individual has a disability-related need for an assistance animal involves an individualized assessment, according to HUD.
Federal fair housing law broadly defines “disability” to mean physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities. That covers a wide variety of physical and psychological impairments—many of which aren’t obvious or apparent—as long as the impairment is serious enough to substantially limit a major life activity, such as seeing, hearing, walking, or caring for oneself.
Assistance animals are not pets under fair housing law, according to HUD. They’re animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. You can’t charge an extra fee or pet deposit as a condition of granting a reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal.
Don’t get confused by the different rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which governs the types of animals used by individuals with disabilities in places that are open to the public, such as restaurants, hotels, and other venues. With one limited exception, the ADA permits only individually trained service dogs—and excludes emotional support animals.
But the FHA, which governs multifamily housing communities, is much broader than that. Fair housing law allows not only service dogs, but also any type of animal that provides assistance or emotional support to an individual with a disability. Breed, size, or weight limitations may not be applied to an assistance animal, according to HUD. Assistance animals don’t have to be individually trained or certified—and they all have the same legal standing—regardless of what type of assistance they provide to an individual with a disability.
8 RULES FOR HANDLING REQUESTS
FOR ASSISTANCE ANIMALS
Rule #1: Adopt Pet Policy Subject to Exceptions for Assistance Animals
Fair housing law doesn’t prevent you from having a pet policy—as long as you don’t use it to keep out assistance animals. Some communities ban pets altogether, while others place limits on the number, type, size, or weight of pets and impose conditions such as extra fees, pet deposits, or additional rent charges. Whatever your policy on pets, it’s unlawful to deny an exception for an assistance animal needed by an individual with a disability to fully use and enjoy the community.
Example: In July 2019, HUD charged a Maine community and one of its agents with discrimination for denying a veteran with disabilities the right to keep his assistance animal. In his HUD complaint, the veteran alleged that he called the community in response to an ad on Craigslist. When he told the agent that he had a disability-related need to live with his assistance dog, the agent allegedly responded, “absolutely not,” and she regretted allowing a prior tenant to live with his assistance dog because other tenants then wanted to get pet dogs.
“No person with a disability should be denied the accommodation they need, especially individuals who served in the Armed Forces to defend our freedom,” Anna, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “HUD will continue to work to ensure that housing providers meet their obligation to comply with this nation’s fair housing laws.”
Rule #2: Don’t Make Snap Decisions About Requests for Assistance Animals
Anytime someone asks for an exception to your pet policy to keep an assistance animal, you should treat it as you would any other request for a reasonable accommodation. The reasonable accommodation rules kick in anytime anyone says he needs or wants something—including an assistance animal—because of a disability. The law doesn’t require that a request be made at a particular time or in a particular manner. The person doesn’t have to mention fair housing law or use the words “reasonable accommodation.”
When you receive a request for an assistance animal, HUD says there are two relevant questions:
- Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability—that is, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
- Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks with services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?
If the answer to both questions is “no,” then HUD says that fair housing law doesn’t require you to make an exception to your pet policy and the reasonable accommodation request may be denied.
If the answer to both questions is “yes,” however, you’re required to make an exception to your pet policies to permit an individual with a disability to live with and use an assistance animal at the community, unless doing so would impose an undue financial or administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the community’s services.
The request may also be denied if the animal is a direct threat to your property or the health and safety of others. But HUD warns that you can’t make that decision based on speculation about the animal’s size or breed—you have to look into the specifics of the particular animal involved. It can get complicated, so don’t make snap decisions about whether to bar an animal on that basis without reviewing all the facts.
Rule #3: Request Documentation When Needed to Evaluate Request
Don’t deny a request just because you’re uncertain about whether the person seeking the accommodation has a disability or a disability-related need for an assistance animal. Though fair housing law generally forbids housing providers from making disability-related inquiries, there’s an exception for reasonable accommodation requests when either the disability—or the disability-related need for the requested accommodation—isn’t obvious or apparent.
Just remember: You can’t ask questions about an applicant’s disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal if both are known or readily apparent. The classic example is a request by a blind or visually impaired applicant to keep a guide dog. Since both the disability and the need for the animal are readily apparent, you can’t ask for documentation about the applicant’s disability or disability-related need for the dog.
You may request information from a resident with a known or obvious disability—but only if his need for the assistance animal isn’t readily apparent. As an example, federal guidelines point to a request by an applicant who uses a wheelchair to keep a dog as an assistance animal. The applicant’s disability is readily apparent, but the need for the assistance animal isn’t obvious, so you can ask the applicant to provide information about the disability-related need for the dog—as long as you don’t go overboard by asking for too much information.
Rule #4: Ask for Verification If Resident Doesn’t Have Apparent Disability
Be careful about how you handle requests for assistance animals from applicants or residents who don’t have an obvious or apparent disability. Under fair housing law, all individuals with disabilities are equally protected—whether they’re physical or mental, obvious or not–so don’t let outward appearances affect how you treat them.
If the resident’s disability isn’t readily observable, you may ask for reliable disability-related information that’s necessary to verify that the resident has a disability that qualifies under the FHA—that is, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities—and has a disability-related need for the animal. You can’t ask the resident for information about what his disability is or what the animal does to assist him—only for confirmation that there is a disability and that the animal is needed because of that disability.
In general, verification may come from a doctor or a medical professional, peer support group, or reliable third party in a position to know about the individual’s disability—even the resident himself, under certain circumstances. But you can’t ask applicants or residents for access to medical records or medical providers—or for detailed or extensive documentation about their physical or mental impairments.
For example, HUD says that communities may ask applicants who want a reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal that provides emotional support to provide documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of an existing disability. Such documentation is sufficient if it establishes that an individual has a disability and that the animal in question will provide some type of disability-related assistance or emotional support, according to HUD.
Editor's Note: For model forms you can use to verify an applicant or resident's need for an assistance animal, see “Use Forms to Verify Resident’s Need for Assistance Animal,” which appeared in our June 2018 issue.
Rule #5: Consider Requests for Emotional Support Animals
Treat requests for emotional support animals the same as any other request for a service dog or any other type of assistance animal. Fair housing law allows people with disabilities to have assistance animals that perform work or tasks, or that provide disability-related emotional support.
Example: In April 2019, the Justice Department sued the owner and property manager of a seven-unit rental property in New York City for refusing a reasonable accommodation to allow a resident with psychiatric disabilities to live with an emotional support German Shepherd in his unit. According to the complaint, the resident was a retired law enforcement officer and Septemberfirst responder who required an emotional support dog to assist him with his disabilities. The complaint alleged that the community sought to evict him for living with an emotional support dog and, after discontinuing the eviction action in which each side was supposed to pay its own attorney’s fees, the community allegedly retaliated and harassed him by billing him for its attorney’s fees related to its unsuccessful eviction attempt [U.S. v. Higgins, April 2019].
Example: In March 2019, the owner and property manager of a 232-unit housing cooperative in New York City agreed to pay $70,000 to settle allegations that they violated fair housing law by refusing to allow a resident with disabilities to keep an emotional support beagle in his unit. The Justice Department filed the complaint, alleging that the resident had disabilities and requested a reasonable accommodation to keep an assistance dog in his unit. According to the complaint, the community effectively denied the request by issuing a notice of default stating that he violated his lease by harboring a dog in his unit. A few months later, the complaint alleged that the community notified him that his tenancy would be terminated because he kept a dog in his unit [U.S. v. 118 EastOwners, Inc., March 2019].
Rule #6: Don’t Put Too Much—or Too Little—Stock in Online Certifications
Knowing the rules on disability verification is essential to avoiding the common mistakes that lead to complaints involving requests for assistance animals. It’s particularly important now that so many applicants or residents can go online and find a quick “certification” process to say their dog is a certified assistance animal.
Example: In November 2018, a court dismissed claims against a Florida homeowners association for denying a resident’s request for an assistance animal. In his complaint, the resident alleged that he was disabled as a result of a 2009 auto accident and bought a Rottweiler puppy in 2017 to serve as a service dog allegedly on the advice of his doctor. When he received a notice of violation stating that Rottweilers weren’t permitted, the resident said he informed the community that the puppy was a service animal. Instead of completing a medical release and form to verify his accommodation request, he allegedly produced service dog identification cards purchased online, his handicap parking placard, and copies of his disability checks. Allegedly, the community denied his reasonable accommodation request because he didn’t provide documentation of his disability or need for a service dog.
He sued, but the court dismissed the case because the resident failed to prove that he had a disability under fair housing law. The only information about his disability was in his complaint. Although he alleged permanent mobility impairments from his 2009 car accident, he failed to present evidence of his injuries or limitations. And the community presented photos of him riding a scooter, and standing and walking unaided, which contradicted his allegations of disability [Fitzsimmons v. Sand & Sea Homeowners Association, November 2018].
When an applicant provides you with an online certification that he needs an assistance animal, it’s necessary to determine whether it meets the requirements that it’s reliable and from someone familiar with the applicant’s disability. Don’t automatically assume that an online certification wasn’t issued by any recognized group, or a medical or mental health provider, and deny the request.
You still have the obligation to consider, respond, and act on the request—even when you suspect that the online verification doesn’t provide you with all the information you need to act on the accommodation request. Unless the applicant has an obvious disability, you may request confirmation from her treating mental or medical health professional to verify that the applicant is under the provider’s care and treatment and that the provider has diagnosed a medical or mental condition that renders the patient disabled. You may also request confirmation from the treating doctor or mental health provider that the animal is prescribed to assist with the disability.
If the applicant or resident is unwilling to cooperate or obtain the proper medical or mental health provider’s assistance in verifying the information, then you may have grounds for denying the request. But this is a difficult area, so it’s important to get legal advice before taking any adverse action.
Rule #7: Consider Requests for Dogs Otherwise Excluded Under Pet Policies
Carefully consider requests for assistance animals—even if it’s for an animal that’s generally prohibited under your pet policies. It’s common for communities to allow only certain types of pets or to exclude animals based on their size or breed. But remember—these limits don’t apply to assistance animals. HUD says that breed, size, and weight restrictions may not be applied to an assistance animal.
Example: In February 2019, the owner and manager of an apartment building in Manhattan agreed to pay $100,000 to settle allegations of disability discrimination for refusing to rent a unit to an applicant with a psychiatric disability and her fiance because she had a large assistance animal.
According to the complaint filed by the Justice Department, the couple expressed interest in renting a unit, but they had a “service animal” that was “probably over the permitted weight limit” for the building. After they submitted forms requesting a reasonable accommodation, the manager allegedly notified them that the community would permit them to have a dog up to 50 pounds as a reasonable accommodation but their current dog—a 120-pound Cane—was too large, so it would be best if they didn’t pursue their application for an unit in the building [U.S. v. Glenwood Management, February 2019].
It can get complicated when it comes to breed restrictions. Many communities have policies restricting certain dog breeds, most notably pit bulls, but HUD says that breed restrictions don’t apply to assistance animals. To comply with fair housing law, you must assess whether the particular animal in question poses a direct threat; otherwise, you may be accused of denying a reasonable accommodation by excluding an assistance animal based on its breed.
It’s another matter if your community is subject to a local ordinance banning pit bulls or other “dangerous breeds.” If allowing the dog would violate local law, then you may have grounds to deny the request, but this is another gray area where it’s a good idea to get legal advice before taking action on the request.
Example: In April 2019, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled against a resident who claimed that the city violated fair housing law by denying his reasonable accommodation request to keep his pit bull as an emotional support animal despite its ordinance banning pit bulls and other “dangerous dogs.”
The lawsuit was filed by a resident who was partially paralyzed and had a pit bull as an emotional support animal. That same year, the city adopted an ordinance banning pit bulls and other dangerous dogs but grandfathered in dogs registered with the city before the law took effect. The resident failed to register the dog on time, so an enforcement officer said he’d have to get rid of the dog.
After obtaining documentation from his doctor, the resident sued the city for violating fair housing law. Rejecting the city’s argument that it was exempt from the FHA, the court issued an order that the ordinance was invalid as applied to the resident’s retention of the dog in his home.
On appeal, the state’s highest court reversed in part, ruling that the resident failed to prove that the requested accommodation was necessary. Assuming that he needed an emotional support dog, he failed to prove that other dogs not covered by the ordinance couldn’t provide comparable therapeutic benefit with regard to his disability. Fair housing law didn’t give him a right to his preferred option [Wilkinson v. City of Arapahoe, April 2019].
Rule #8: Don’t Ban Assistance Animals from Common Areas
Don’t impose unreasonable limits that prevent residents with disabilities from bringing their assistance animals into common areas. HUD says that residents with disabilities may use assistance animals in all areas of the premises where persons are normally allowed to go unless doing so would impose an undue financial and administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of your services.
Example: In February 2019, a court ruled that a Nevada homeowners association had to pay a couple $635,000 for refusing to grant the wife’s disability-related reasonable accommodation request to bring her assistance animal, a Chihuahua, into the clubhouse.
The court ruled that the FHA applied because access to the clubhouse was necessary for the couple’s enjoyment of their home. The dog qualified under the ADA as an assistance animal because it assisted the wife with acute pain attacks and with retrieving her walker. The dog was not disruptive, threatening, or harmful to the other residents in the community or in the clubhouse, so the accommodation to allow the dog to accompany the wife into the clubhouse was clearly a reasonable accommodation of the wife’s disability.
The court assessed punitive damages against some of the parties involved in denying the wife’s accommodation requests. Among other things, the court said they:
- Continued, in a harassing and malicious manner, to request documentation about the wife’s need for the dog’s assistance even after sufficient documentation was provided regarding her disability and the ways in which the dog assisted her;
- Actively and wantonly prevented the couple from using the clubhouse once documentation was provided;
- Sent or directed to be sent communications on behalf of the board portraying the couple as litigious and untruthful and knew that these communications would contribute to a hostile, threatening, and intimidating living environment; and
- Failed to discourage other residents from harassing and threatening the couple at open meetings and through anonymous letters.
The court further found that they acted with personal animus toward the couple, which fueled the antagonism among the community [v. Homeowners Association, LLC, February 2019].
Nevertheless, you don’t have to tolerate bad behavior by individuals with disabilities—or their assistance animals—when they’re in common areas. You may expect them to have their assistance animals under their control, for example, by requiring them to be leashed unless doing so would interfere with the animal’s ability to perform disability-related tasks. You may establish rules to require residents with assistance animals to pick up and dispose of the animal’s waste and to hold them accountable if the animal becomes disruptive or acts aggressively toward other residents.
- Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.