Service, Assistance and Emotional Support Animals – Who’s Confused?
Consider this scenario:
A prospective resident who is blind makes an accommodation request for her service dog to live in her apartment, even though your property doesn’t allow pets. Are you required to grant this request?
You probably know that you would need to grant this request. But what if the prospect requested an emotional support bird in addition to a service dog? What if she gave you an online “certification” for the emotional support bird? What if the requested service dog was a restricted breed in your county?
Accommodation requests related to assistance animals are prevalent, yet they cause much confusion. This is understandable – multiple laws apply and use different terms and definitions, there are many kinds of assistance animals that help people with many types of disabilities (some of which are not obvious), and online sites have surfaced offering questionable documentation.
So, what you can you do? Follow these suggestions for reducing your risk of discrimination when it comes to assistance animals:
Know the laws
Three laws relate to rental housing and service and assistance animals: the Fair Housing Act (FHA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The FHA applies to almost all rental housing. Among other things, it prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, such as making an exception to a no-pet policy or a breed restriction.
Housing that receives federal financial assistance from HUD must also comply with Section 504. Like the FHA, Section 504 prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
Whereas the FHA and Section 504 prohibit discrimination in housing, the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in all areas of public life, including schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the public. The ADA requires you to let service dogs accompany their owners in any area of the community that is open to the public, such as the leasing office.
Know the terminology and definitions
The FHA and Section 504 use “assistance animal” as a broad term to describe any animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. Under the FHA and Section 504, service animals, emotional support animals, and companion animals are all considered assistance animals. An assistance animal may be any type of animal and is not required to have specific training.
The ADA uses the term “service animal” and defines it specifically as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Emotional support animals, companion animals and animals other than dogs (and sometimes miniature horses) are not considered service animals under the ADA.
You cannot deny a reasonable accommodation request because an animal does not meet the ADA definition of a service animal. Under the FHA and Section 504, reasonable accommodations must be granted for assistance animals, which include service animals, emotional support animals, and companion animals.
Residents making accommodation requests are not required to use specific terminology. If an animal works, assists, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability, it doesn’t matter what term someone uses, it is an assistance animal under the FHA and Section 504.
Think of assistance animals as working animals, not pets
Thinking of assistance animals as working animals, not pets, can prevent confusion. Under the FHA and Section 504, assistance animals may be cats, dogs, birds, turtles, rabbits, hamsters, fish, or nearly any other type of animal. It is not the type of animal that matters, but rather the function the animal serves.
Understand assistance animal documentation
Currently, there are no legally recognized organizations for registering service or assistance animals. Sites that claim to be certifying bodies or that offer official registrations are misleading because there is no such thing.
Under the FHA, there is no requirement that assistance animals be trained. Documentation only needs to establish that the person has a disability and that the animal provides disability-related assistance or emotional support. An animal’s training is not relevant when evaluating a reasonable accommodations request.
HUD states that you are entitled to documentation from a reliable third party that is in a position to know about the individual’s disability. If the organization or person who issued the documentation has never talked to or met with the person requesting the accommodation, it is likely reasonable to ask for supplemental information.
No matter what source the documentation is from if you are suspicious, do not immediately deny the accommodation request. Instead, start a conversation with the resident to gather more information, and consult your legal counsel.
Know how to handle accommodation requests
Remember these three criteria when considering accommodation requests:
The person must have a disability. If the person’s disability is obvious, you may not ask questions. If the disability is not obvious, you may ask for reliable documentation that the person has a disability. Never ask for details of a person’s physical or mental disability.
- The animal must serve a function directly related to the person’s disability. If the disability-related need is obvious, you may not ask questions. If the need is not obvious, you may ask for reliable documentation that the animal provides disability-related assistance or emotional support
- The request must be reasonable. You are not obligated to grant every request.
Continuously educate yourself
The best way to avoid confusion is to read as much as you can and get exposure to the scenarios that come up in real life. This is the best way to learn things like:
- A resident may be entitled to multiple assistance animals.
- You can deny a request if that particular animal has harmed someone in the past.
- You can usually take action when residents with assistance animals violate community rules.
- And more!
This stuff is complicated – and serious. You’ll find that The Multifamily Property Manager’s Guide to Handling Assistance Animals answers a lot of your questions about assistance animals, including how to tackle conversations with other residents. But when in doubt, ask your supervisor or legal counsel.