Disagreements over service animals have consistently ranked among the most prevalent types of disputes that arise between community associations and their residents. In South Florida alone we have witnessed numerous investigations concerning discrimination claims —many of which still serve as stark reminders of the severe implications of mishandling requests for service animal accommodations.
Most government investigations begin with a complaint from a resident indicating that their request for assistance animals had been denied or that they had refrained from requesting an assistance animal for fear of being evicted.
In light of the patterns we have seen throughout the years, associations should refrain from automatically denying requests for permission to keep service or emotional support animals without first requesting additional information from the resident. By law, associations are entitled to make inquiries in order to determine if the request is legitimate and whether a service or emotional support animal is a necessary accommodation in order for the resident to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their dwelling.
Associations are 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 any major life activity that is impaired by their disability when the disability or the need for the requested accommodation is not apparent. Associations may also request that the resident provide this information from their doctor.
The most difficult disabilities that associations grapple with are those 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 as well as 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. However, associations and property managers should always engage in discussions with the resident by requesting and evaluating all of the necessary information so that they may make an informed decision.