Requests by residents for permission to keep service animals in their units are becoming more and more common throughout community associations in South Florida. In many cases, the requests are for emotional support animals, and the resident's disability is not readily apparent. Even though these requests have become fairly common, many no-pet communities remain uncertain as to how they should respond, especially when the resident skirts the rules and brings the animal into their unit under the cover of darkness.
Associations facing this scenario should avoid knee-jerk denials of requests for permission to keep the animal without first requesting additional information from the resident. By law, associations are entitled to ask the resident about the nature of the disability and other pertinent information to enable the association to determine if the request is legitimate and whether the dog is a necessary accommodation in order for the resident to be able to use and enjoy the dwelling. A flat-out denial without any evaluation or request for additional information will open the community up to a successful fair housing discrimination complaint by the resident.
Associations are also entitled to inquire about how the disability affects the resident's major life activities (walking, breathing, working, seeing, hearing are examples of some defined major life activities), and how the animal assists the individual with this major life activity that is impaired by their disability. Associations may also request that the resident provide this information from their doctor.
If a resident does not respond to the association's request for information regarding the disability, then, in the case of a no-pet building, it is reasonable for the association to proceed with the filing of a petition for arbitration with the Division of Florida Condominiums seeking removal of the animal from the premises. If the resident fails to provide the requested information and instead files a fair housing discrimination complaint, the association will be able to demonstrate that it never declined to permit the service animal but simply asked for more information that was not provided.
The most difficult disabilities that associations grapple with are those disabilities that are relieved by emotional support animals as opposed to a service animal. However, just because the disability is not readily apparent, but rather psychological in nature, does not mean that the resident's claim is bogus or deniable. If a resident is being treated for depression, especially if they have lost a spouse or loved one and are receiving psychiatric therapy and perhaps also medication, it is difficult to deny a doctor's claim that the animal provides the emotional support that is necessary for them to perform the most basic major life activities such as going to work, buying the groceries and even simply just getting out of bed.
Associations must keep in mind that it is the resident's burden to prove the disability and that the relief provided by the service animal is necessary to afford them an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling. Associations should always request and evaluate all of the necessary information in order to make an informed decision as to whether to grant permission for the animal.