Becker & Poliakoff

Law Cracks Down on Owners Harboring Fake Service Pets

Law Cracks Down on Owners Harboring Fake Service Pets

Good news for condo associations: A new law creates penalties for owners trying to pass their pets off as service animals.

Thanks to the new law that now makes it a misdemeanor to lie about an animal’s skill-set as a designated helper to a disabled owner, condo associations have fresh ammunition to enforce their pet policies.

The law, unanimously approved by state legislators, took effect July 1. It amends existing legislation by elaborating on the tasks performed by service animals.

“It’s a way to level the playing field,” said attorney¬†Donna DiMaggio Berger, a Becker & Poliakoff shareholder who’s counseled condominium, cooperative, timeshare, mobile home and homeowner associations throughout Florida since 1992. “The pendulum has swung very far in favor of people who want to bring their pets with them and are willing to mount any sort of argument they need to mount to make that a possibility.”

But that could change now with Florida’s shift to amend its laws to align with service-animal provisions in the American with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

The new legislation redefines “service animal,” for the purposes of public accommodation and limits the term to a dog or miniature horse.

It seeks to protect a broader cross section of people by expanding the existing state law’s definition of disability “deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired or otherwise physically disabled.”

The new law covers “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” like walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.

It protects people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, and mental or psychological disorders specified in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

It also goes one step further than its predecessor to require the animal’s tasks be directly related to the handler’s disability.

“What the legislation really did was provide some clarification,” said Gary Mars, shareholder at Siegfried Rivera Hyman Lerner De La Torre Mars & Sobel. “As association lawyers, it gives us a better definition of service pets, which prior to this legislation had less definition.”

But some attorneys say that might not be enough for condo associations and other community managers who must walk a perilous line between complying with rules for accommodating people with disabilities and weeding out those who try to cheat the system.

First, there’s no requirement by state or local governments to license or certify service animals. And it’s illegal to require proof of a disability or identification for the animal, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

That leaves businesses with limited recourse to ferret out frauds. They can ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what tasks it’s been trained to perform.

But that’s especially risky with Florida’s aging population and growing numbers of seniors claiming beloved pets as emotional support animals, often in communities or properties with weight, breed or other pet restrictions.

In these cases, the animals often have no demonstrable skill set to prove their ability to help battle bipolar, depression, anxiety and other mental health afflictions.

“The biggest issue is fraudulent requests for support animals,” Berger said. “If someone is trying to game the system, they’re more likely to say it’s an emotional support animal than a service animal.”

That’s why attorneys like Glen Waldman of Heller Waldman in Miami want legislation with more teeth.
“It’s an improvement, but it doesn’t go far enough,” he said. My concern, being a skeptical lawyer, is it just seems super easy to circumvent the rules of the game, and there’s not much that you can do about it.

But even with the loopholes, attorneys agree the law strengthens protections for disabled residents and takes a first step toward weeding out fakes.

“A lot of abuses are triggered by emotional support animals, and the legislation does not address that,” Berger said. “But it’s the first bite of the apple.”