Q: I live in a condominium that does not allow pets of any kind, and never has allowed them. One of the reasons I purchased a unit in this condominium is because I don’t like pets and I don’t want to be around them. Last year my condo board allowed a new owner, who is blind, to have a service animal. I had no problem with that decision. However, another long-time owner has recently been given permission from the condo board to keep a cat in her unit. When I expressed my objection to this decision at a recent board meeting, the board said that this unit owner met the qualifications under the law for a reasonable accommodation and that the board had no choice but to allow the cat. The board also mentioned the owner having some certification for the cat that further justified the decision. When I pressed the board for more information about this certification they told me the owner got it off the internet. What is the current state of the law on this issue? Are no pet restrictions still enforceable? H.H.
A: The Florida and Federal Fair Housing Acts (“FHA”) can require a reasonable accommodation to a community association’s rules, policies, and procedures. One such situation is to accommodate a person’s physical or mental handicap/disability that substantially impairs the person’s major life activities and requires an accommodation to address a handicap/disability. A community association is required to make a reasonable accommodation in situations where the handicap/disability is properly documented and the relationship between the disability and the need for the reasonable accommodation is provided.
In order to be entitled to an accommodation under the FHA, a medical professional or other qualified person must establish that a requesting individual has a disability-related need for the animal. The documentation from the medical professional must explain that the requesting individual is either physically or mentally disabled, must confirm which major life activities are impaired and further explain how or why the accommodation ameliorates the symptoms of the alleged disability.
The bottom line is that if a community association receives a reasonable accommodation request from an individual seeking an accommodation from a pet restriction, the association must closely review the request and confirm that the requesting individual meets the requisite criteria. Community associations need to be careful in not only what type of information and documentation they ask for, but they also need to closely safeguard any medical information provided by the requesting individual. The liability for failing to comply with the many legal requirements in this area of the law are significant. As such, any community association who receives a reasonable accommodation request should reach out to their attorney for further guidance.
While this is a confusing area of the law, and a frustrating area of the law for many, studies have confirmed that a legitimately disabled person will greatly benefit from a service animal or an emotional support animal. That being said, I have also seen situations where non-disabled persons have fraudulently sought the protections of these laws in an effort to keep their pet in a no-pet community. There are now many online websites that are selling “assistance animal documentation” to people who do not have disabilities in an effort to help these persons evade housing providers’ pet restrictions. In many instances these online websites are simply requiring a short survey be completing by the subject person, and in return a “certificate” is provided for a stated fee. It is important for community associations to closely review any submitted documentation to identify any bogus documentation which doesn’t meet the above-stated qualifications required under state and federal law to qualify for a reasonable accommodation.
The abuses facilitated by these online websites recently drew the ire and attention of Secretary Ben Carson of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”). In a letter dated November 6, 2019 to the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), Secretary Carson confirmed that “In HUD’s view, the websites in question offer documentation that is not reliable for purposes of determining whether an individual has a disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal because the website operators and health care professionals who consult with them lack the personal knowledge that is necessary to make such determinations…HUD is concerned that these websites may be misleading low-income individuals with potentially deceptive statements and information suggesting that their worthless products are required…” Secretary Carson ends his letter by asking the FTC to investigate these abuses to determine if they violate federal law. I commend Secretary Carson for his letter and I also urge the FTC to crack down on these misleading websites.
There are also a few bills addressing this issue that have been filed and will be considered during the upcoming 2020 Florida legislative session. One such bill, HB 209, co-sponsored by Representative Tina Polsky (D-Palm Beach County), is currently making its way through subcommittee review. In brief, this bill would make it a misdemeanor of the second degree if any person falsifies written documentation for an emotional support animal or otherwise knowingly and willfully misrepresents themselves as being qualified to use an emotional support animal. This bill is similar to Section 413.08(9), Florida Statutes, which makes it a second-degree misdemeanor to misrepresent that an animal is a service animal if it is not. HB 209 also addresses the quality of the written documentation that must be submitted from the health care provider in support of the request for accommodation. If passed, this bill would prohibit letters prepared by health care practitioners whose exclusive service to the person with a disability is preparation of the document in exchange for a fee. We will be closely watching the progress of this bill in the coming months.
Attorney David G. Muller is a shareholder with the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff, P.A., Naples (www.beckerlawyers.com). The information provided herein is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The publication of this column does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Becker & Poliakoff, P.A. or any of our attorneys. Readers should not act or refrain from acting based upon the information contained in this article without first contacting an attorney, if you have questions about any of the issues raised herein. The hiring of an attorney is a decision that should not be based solely on advertisements or this column.
This article originally appeared in the Naples Daily News.