By: Kristie Leff
With the growing popularity of emotional support animals, condominium associations are increasing forced to confront the issue of whether or not to permit emotional support animals to reside in units at associations that do not allow pets. Emotional support animals differ from service animals in that service animals are specially trained animals that assist people for a specific purpose, such as guiding a blind person or alerting to an epileptic seizure. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are not specially trained, but merely provide comfort to a person.
Pursuant to the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (1988) and corresponding case law, service animals must be allowed to reside in units as a reasonable accommodation for disabled people with documented needs, even if the association has a no pets rule, as long as the accommodation does not constitute an undue financial or administrative burden for the association, or fundamentally alter the nature of the housing.
However, what if the animal is an “emotional support animal” that is not specially trained and merely provides a person with comfort — is that animal allowed to reside in a unit that does not otherwise allow pets? The answer is ‘yes’; under fair housing laws emotional support animals are treated the same as service animals in housing situations. This means that if the resident provides documentation from a healthcare provider stating they have an emotional or mental condition that would benefit significantly from having an emotional support animal, the association must allow the animal to reside in the unit, despite a prohibition on pets, as long as the accommodation does not constitute an undue financial or administrative burden for the association, or fundamentally alter the nature of the housing.
Even though this may seem fairly straightforward, there are still may questions and issues that associations have. First and foremost, associations may question whether the request to keep an emotional support animal is legitimate, or just an excuse to keep a pet in contravention of the no pet rule. We have all heard the stories about websites that provide fake certificates for a fee that claim to certify a pet as an emotional support animal. In order to avoid being scammed, an association should not accept such certificates as proof of the need for an emotional support animal. The letter must be from a healthcare provider who is actually treating the person. Also, associations may question the whole concept of “emotional support animals” and whether there is scientific evidence that an untrained animal has any significant therapeutic benefit. For the time being, even though the medical efficacy of emotional support animals may be inconclusive, as long as fair housing laws recognize emotional support animals as legitimate if the proper documentation is provided, associations will need to abide by the law or face penalties.
Speaking of penalties, the penalties for violations of fair housing laws can be severe. The penalties can include monetary damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. In addition, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (the state agency that enforces fair housing laws) may require training sessions for board members who violate fair housing laws.
Once a resident has provided the necessary documentation for the emotional support animal, the association may feel like it is hostage to the rights of the resident and the proclivities of the animal. However, this is not the case. The association still has the ability to enforce its rules related to nuisance and activities on the common elements. For example, if the animal is constantly barking, defecating on or damaging common elements, or attacking other residents, the association is completely within its rights to enforce any rules it may have related to these activities.
If your association is confronted with a request by a resident to keep an emotional support animal in a unit, the board will want to take steps to both properly scrutinize the medical documentation provided, and avoid a wrongful denial that may subject the association to penalties. If your association has questions about what steps to take, seeking legal advice is recommended.