A Florida man recently demanded that a no-pet condominium association permit his “emotional support parrots.” He would walk around the pool area with the parrots on his shoulder like a pirate. A woman tried to board an airplane in Orlando with her “emotional support squirrel.” The airport in Newark was the scene of a New Jersey woman trying to fly with her “emotional support peacock.”
Some people believe that an emotional support animal is a legitimate concept. Others think that they are just a scam used by clever owners to get around valid pet rules and fees. In any event, if you think there ought to be a law, then please know that there is a part of the real estate law, at least as it relates to housing.
What is the Law?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA), is a sweeping federal law pertaining to the real estate that prohibits discrimination in housing. Landlords and associations are required to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow assistance animals. Accordingly, owners of so-called “emotional support animals” are protected under the FHA from any landlord or homeowner’s association or condominium association animal rules, including the type of animal, pet limits, pet fees, pet insurance, or no pet policy.
However, if the housing provider can prove in a court of law that the animal in question could or does exhibit a threat to the health or safety of others, or that it creates a great financial or administrative burden to the community, then it can prohibit the animal. But because access to the courts is time consuming and expensive, few landlords and associations will go to that length (unless, perhaps, someone has an emotional support alligator or tiger).
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
An emotional support animal is not considered to be a “pet”. Nor is it a “service animal”. A service animal, such as a seeing eye dog, is specifically trained to perform a task for its owner. An emotional support animal, by contrast, can be something as simple as a domesticated animal, any domesticated animal, (dog, cat, mouse, rabbit, bird, snake, hedgehog, rat, mini pig, ferret, etc.) that alleviates a person’s depression or anxiety. It is a companion animal that provides healing benefits to someone with any type of mental or physical disability or illness. An emotional support animal need not have any sort of specialized training or certification, and it can be any breed, age, size, or weight. It is not required to wear any special collar or harness.
How Does Someone Prove the Need for an Emotional Support Animal?
A housing provider may require the animal owner to provide documentation from a “physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professionals that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates” a mental or physical disability. This is quite a low bar–most doctors and psychologists would be willing to provide such a letter, and likely even more “mental health professionals” would oblige. In theory, all one would need to say is, “I get depressed, and my dog, cat, bird, ferret, etc. helps me feel better. Please write a letter that says I need an emotional support animal.” Other than this letter, the housing provider is prohibited from requiring access to the person’s medical records or from requiring additional documentation.
The person providing the letter does not even need to have a long-term medical or psychological treatment relationship with the animal owner. Indeed, there are websites that, for a fee, simply require the pet owner to fill out an online questionnaire, after which a “therapist” contacts them (perhaps only by email), and the letter appears. Take that letter to the housing provider, and Fido should be able to live with you. The housing provider cannot unreasonably delay its approval.
Is This All Just a Scam?
Most emotional support animal requests are probably legitimate. But there always have been and always will be people who abuse the system. These scofflaws are experienced and skilled at their malfeasance. Making bogus emotional support animal claims is right up their alley-plenty of these animals are just pets, plain and simple. But in these politically correct, “everyone is a victim, everything is offensive” times, none of us should be surprised at the proliferation of emotional support animal claims.
If you are looking for board certified attorneys to guide you with regards to real estate law services, we can help. We have the expertise and knowledge to understand your situation and come up with reliable solutions.
Ned Hale, Esq. is the owner of Hale Law Services, P.A., with offices in Estero and Sanibel. Feel free to call us at 239-931-6767 or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about our services.