Q: I live in a condo. We are having some issues with residents that are moving into the building and requesting a companion dog. They always say they can a letter from their doctor. Please advise, your help is greatly appreciated.
A: The Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) requires “housing providers,” such as a condominium association, to make “reasonable accommodations” to disabled persons in rules, policies, practices or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination similarly requires accommodation of the disabled. Decisions of federal and state courts in interpreting these laws have held that in certain instances housing providers must accommodate those with a legitimate physical or emotional disability requiring the support or assistance of an animal regardless of any restrictions on pets in the governing documents. That said, a “letter from their doctor” is not necessarily sufficient to establish that a resident suffers from a legitimate disability requiring the support or assistance of an animal.
A governing board may require that residents requesting such an accommodation provide information and documentation sufficient enough to allow the board to reasonably establish that the resident: (1) suffers from a disability as defined by law; and, (2) requires the physical assistance or emotional support of an animal to accommodate their disability. For example, amongst other things, the association may request a certification from a qualified treating professional certifying under the penalty of perjury that the resident’s disability meets the standards set forth by the FHAA and that no alternative accommodation exists.
Ultimately, a request for an accommodation of a physical or emotional disability is not something a governing board should take lightly. The failure to make a reasonable accommodation of a disability is considered discrimination. Therefore, even if the governing board believes that the resident does not suffer from a disability or the resident making the request is unwilling to provide information or documentation, the advice of legal counsel should be sought before declining a request for an emotional support animal.