In a previous article we discussed what can happen when a condominium association improperly handles an accommodation request involving a service animal. Unfortunately, a recent federal case in Florida shows that some associations are still struggling with requests for service animals.
In this case, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was told he could not keep his dog because it exceeded the association’s 25-pound limit. The unit owner sent a letter from his treating physician stating that the emotional support animal was prescribed to help the unit owner cope with his PTSD-related depression, stress and anxiety. The physician then provided two more letters describing the nature of the disability and the need for an emotional support animal in greater detail.
Nevertheless, the association requested more information from the unit owner and his physician. After several months without a response, the association formally demanded removal of the dog. After filing a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Florida Commission on Human Relations, the unit owner sued the association under the federal and Florida Fair Housing Act (FHA) for denying him a reasonable accommodation.
To prevail in his reasonable accommodation claim, the unit owner had to prove:
- he is handicapped within the meaning of the FHA;
- he requested a reasonable accommodation that was necessary for him to use and enjoy the unit; and
- the association refused to make the requested accommodation.
Though the court did not decide whether the unit owner suffers from a handicap, it did conclude that the association denied the unit owner’s requested accommodation. According to the court, the FHA does not require that every accommodation request be granted. Prior to making a decision, an association may undertake a meaningful review of the situation to determine if an accommodation is required by law.
For example, an association may request reliable disability-related information that verifies the disability, describes the needed accommodation and shows the relationship between the two. Noting that these inquiries should not be highly intrusive, the court held that the three letters from the unit owner’s physician gave the association all the information it needed.
Though asking about the dog’s disability-specific training, the dates and location of training, the trainers’ names and certificates of completion may have tested the limits reasonableness, the court held that asking about the unit owner’s diagnosis, prognosis, medications, number of weekly counseling sessions and future treatment plans went beyond the scope of reasonable inquiry. Accordingly, the court ruled against the association.
While it is clear that a condominium association cannot just look to its standard pet policy when faced with an accommodation request involving a service animal, this case shows that an association’s doubts about whether a service animal is really necessary do not justify unreasonably broad demands for information. This case suggests that once a treating physician explains the reasons for prescribing an emotional support animal, an association may be unable to deny an accommodation request. Doing so could expose the association to liability under the FHA.
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