Service dogs perform all kinds of helpful and impressive tasks to serve the handicapped and
disabled: guiding the blind, pulling their owners in wheelchairs in some cases even dialing 911.
They can be vital to their owners’ well-being. But occasionally, tenants try to abuse the system
by bringing pets that don’t qualify as service animals into no-pet properties. It’s crucial for
landlords to know the ins and outs of this system.
Should I ever question the legitimacy of a service animal?
Landlords are continuously receiving requests to accommodate animals in no-pet units, and as
you may already suspect, not all of these requests are legitimate. It’s important for rental owners
enforcing a no-pet policy in their units to know what separates service animals (which landlords
absolutely must make reasonable accommodations for if the tenant has a disability) from
assistance animals, and what legally constitutes an assistance animal.
So let’s define a few terms
First, not all assistance animals are service animals (the latter must be accommodated in the case
of a disability). Some are emotional support animals, which don’t have to be trained for specific
tasks and whose primary function is to provide support through companionship. The rules here
are a bit more complicated. With increased amounts of research showing the benefits that animal
ownership can have for people with certain mental and physical disabilities, tenant requests for
assistance animals are, naturally, on the rise.
In order to bring an assistance animal into a no-pet rental, tenants must qualify for a reasonable
accommodation, meaning “a change in rules, policies, practices, or services so that a person with
a disability will have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit or common space.” In
2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development stated that in order to qualify for an
assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation, the answer to both of these questions must be
Does the person requesting the animal indeed have a diagnosed disability that that
impacts major life activities?
Does the person requesting the animal have a disability-related need for it and will the
animal assist, perform tasks or perform services for the disabled person?
If the answer to either question is no, the landlord does not have to grant the request. If the answer to both is yes, then the landlord most likely has to grant it. Service pets must be dogs—seeing-eye dogs for the visually impaired, signal dogs for the hard of hearing, or service dogs for other physical disabilities—or in some rare cases, miniature horses,and must be specially trained to perform tasks for their owners. Again, landlords must make reasonable accommodations for them if the tenant has a disability. But emotional support animals (ESAs) are a bit trickier. ESAs, or companion animals, don’t need to be trained to perform any set task, and there are no species restrictions on what can constitute an ESA.
The Fair Housing Act allows for companion animals in rental units but not in the public spaces (restaurants, etc.) that service animals have access to. Some landlords fear it leaves room for tenants to act in bad faith, going online to get their pet falsely designated as ESAs simply to get around their landlord’s no-pet policy. When I recently spoke with the renowned eviction attorney Dennis P. Block of Dennis P. Block and Associates, he began his comments with a sort of riddle:“If I rent from you in one of your buildings, and it’s a no-pet building, but I’ve got one of the top-5-ranked best seeing-eye dogs in the entire country, do you have to accommodate me?” I was stumped. I said, “I do, right?” He said, “No, because I’m not blind.”
He went on to explain: a note certifying an animal as a service or emotional support animal does not necessitate a reasonable accommodation if it doesn’t specify that the tenant requires that animal as an accommodation. A health care professional must state that the tenant has a disability and requires the assistance they’re requesting reasonable accommodation for. As a landlord, you don’t have the right to learn the exact nature of their disability. My company recently dealt with a tenant who requested a reasonable accommodation for a pet cat he deemed an emotional support animal. After speaking with our attorney and verifying a letter from the tenant’s physician, we determined that his request was valid, and we granted the accommodation. On the flip side, we’ve dealt with tenants who tried to make such claims but refused to provide any substantiation from a health care professional, and who our attorney advised us not to accommodate.
The key in making these calls is consulting with a legal professional rather than rushing to
judgment and denying claims. If a landlord denies reasonable accommodation to legitimate
ESAs, they run the risk of getting sued and would be responsible for the tenant’s attorney’s fees,
so if you’re considering doing so, don’t take this article as legal counsel — consult with your
landlord/tenant attorney. But there are some circumstances in which a landlord could deny a
tenant’s request or begin eviction because of the animal.
Past court rulings I’ve followed have favored the landlord in these specific situations, pointing
toward them holding up as justifiable reasons for denying an ESA, but again, going forward
without first consulting an attorney is asking for trouble, and landlords should be careful in
investigating any of these factors. So if you’re considering doing so, start with a call to an
attorney you trust, and proceed from there.
Once you’ve spoken with an attorney and ascertained the exact rules for your property regarding
animals, make sure your tenants have access to that information. Have a document handy that
you can distribute to them if they seek specifics on what you will and won’t allow, based on
distinct qualifications. Give them every opportunity to do right by you and your property.
David Crown is the Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles Property Management Group, and
has over twenty-five years of experience managing all types of income properties. Having
managed properties in 16 states, Mr. Crown has been asked to serve as an expert witness in
property management matters, and currently serves on the Forbes Real Estate Council. He can
be reached directly at (818) 646-8151.