Many boards are receiving requests for accommodation for purported service animals. But is it fair to be skeptical about certificates purchased from purported registries? We explore some considerations for boards in granting accommodations for service or emotional support animals.
Pet restrictions can serve very legitimate purposes, particularly in condominiums or townhomes with owners living in close proximity. However, it seems that there are more individuals now seeking to circumvent these restrictions by having their pets registered “officially” as a service animal or an emotional support animal. What right does your board have to question these registrations or other information that an owner might provide?
It’s important to understand the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal. Service animals are dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, like a seeing-eye dog. For the most part, service animals must be allowed to accompany people with disabilities in all public areas. On the other hand, emotional support dogs, which provide comfort, do not qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and can be restricted from public places.
A Growing Industry: Service Animal Registries
A quick online search reveals a growing number of companies that offer registration services for both service and emotional support animals. Many of them have official sounding names (for example, the “United States Dog Registry” or “National Service Animal Registry” or “US Service Animals”) and are fully-equipped with websites designed to look like government websites. Many people won’t even notice the small print that says the organization is an, “independent organization providing service dog, emotional support dog, and therapy dog registration and products, and is not affiliated with the ADA or any government agency.” It’s important to note that the ADA specifically says that registration for service animals is not required.
On the United States Dog Registry (again, unaffiliated with any government agency), you can purchase a “Lifetime Registration” for a service animal for just $79. The cost is the same for an emotional support animal. It does not seem that these registries perform any sort of verification of the animal’s training or the owner’s need for them. If this is not even required by the ADA, what exactly are people purchasing? Is it even worth the paper it’s printed on?
The National Service Animal Registry (also unaffiliated with any government agency) states that despite it not being required by the ADA, “[v]oluntary registration and service animal identification makes dealing with service animal accessibility in public places, private housing with no-pet policies, lodging, and public transportation MUCH easier.” Moreover, they claim that by purchasing their services, you’ll have what you need, “to avoid nearly all questions and confrontations.”
So let’s be clear: these services are designed to make community associations (and like-minded entities) to back off.
Considerations for your Board
The question is what can your community do when an owner requests an accommodation for his or her pet that would otherwise by restricted under your governing documents. First, it must be distinguished whether it is a specially trained service animal, or just an emotional support animal. If the person seeking an accommodation has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, then they are afforded protection under the ADA. It’s not enough to just have the disability though, they must have a disability-related need for the service animal (for instance, a seeing eye dog is needed for a blind individual). Of course, it might not be immediately apparent whether an individual truly has a disability, and your board may ask for additional information necessary to verify that such a disability, as defined by the ADA, exists, describes the specific need for the accommodation, and shows the relationship between the disability and the need for the service animal. If an owner provides a certificate from one of these registries, that doesn't necessarily address these questions (and it's not required that they provide one either)
If it is an emotional support animal, your association board should also require a doctor’s note attesting to the need for such animal before allowing the accommodation. If one is provided, even though they may be forged, the best course of action may be for your association to grant such accommodation. It is not our role to question medical notes or opinions.
Each request should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and you should seek legal counsel if the right decision isn’t clear. You don’t want to be like the Broward County condominium that paid a $300,000 settlement to an owner for unreasonably banning a service dog! See Sabal Palm Condominiums of Pine Island Ridge Association v. Fischer, No. 12-60691-Civ-SCOLA