Emotional Support Animals can create mess for condo boards
Sea Coast Online
Robert E. Ducharme
11 August 2017
More and more condominium associations are facing the issue of what to
do when an association has a “No Pets” policy and someone claims a need
for an Emotional Support Animal, aka an ESA.
These situations are different than what can happen with disability
assistance dogs. Disability animals, such as sight assistance dogs, are
covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Per the FHA, only dogs and horses can be certified as service animals
Per the FHA, only dogs and horses can be certified as service animals.
So, if you receive a certificate that says, for instance, a cat, gerbil
or snake is a certified service animal, it’s a fake. Anyone can get
these online for a relatively small price. To prove a point during a
court case about how easy it is to get a support animal certificate
online, one attorney said he once paid $49.99 to register “Pluto” as a
support animal for his owner “Mr. Mickey Mouse.”
An ESA, as opposed to a disability serve animal, is a companion animal that provides a therapeutic benefit to a person
ESAs, on the other hand, are governed by the Fair Housing
Administration (FHA) and that can make all the difference. An ESA, as
opposed to a disability serve animal, is a companion animal that
provides a therapeutic benefit to a person with a defined mental,
psychiatric or emotional disability such as depression, bipolar
disorder, panic attacks or anxiety. These may be hard to tell by
observing someone, so associations rightly get to express concern. And
an ESA can be any animal that provides therapeutic relief, aka,
emotional support to an owner, so confrontations abound.
If there is a legitimate need and a legitimate animal, the board has to
allow the animal even if there is a no pet policy or it faces
discrimination charges by the FHA, a place no association wants to be.
The FHA defines discrimination as including “a refusal to make
reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services,
when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a disabled] person
equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”
In English, this means the individual who requests an ESA must
establish his or her disability, and that the emotional support animal
is necessary and reasonable to afford individuals with disabilities
equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.
However, the line drawn by the FHA about allowing ESAs is not a hard
set line. The reasonableness requirement limits accommodations to those
that do not impose an “undue hardship” by causing excessive financial
burdens to the homeowner or condo association or by fundamentally
altering the nature of the subdivision or condo project such as by
having an ESA dog that bites or destroys the common area. For instance,
an association can bar the best ESA horse, if there is no paddock on
Here’s how it works best and in most instances: A member of an
association faced with a pet restriction in the governing documents
will request an accommodation to be able to keep the pet. The request
has to be in writing to protect the owner and association. It has to
include a letter from a doctor that does not need to be notarized so
long as it is on the doctor’s stationary. I have seen one that was not
on letterhead and the request was denied.
The letter does not need to state the member’s disability but only that
the person is disabled and the life functions limited by the
disability. If the disability is apparent and the request is obviously
related to the disability, a board of directors cannot request
additional information and must approve the request. But if the
disability is not apparent, as is the case for many if not most
emotional disabilities, a board can require the owner to provide
reasonable documentation verifying the disability.
This does not mean any animal providing some benefit to a resident must
always be accepted. Rather, the mental health professional must explain
how the ESA requested is necessary, and confirm the tasks the animal
performs specifically address the disability claimed. This requires
more than a mere statement that a dog or cat makes a tenant feel good.
Alleviating depression (if depression is a symptom of the mental
condition, or the condition itself) can be a function of the ESA and
should satisfy the requirement.
Two final points. First, in case a board gets any ideas, an association
cannot charge a deposit as FHA guidelines note the animal is not a pet,
but an emotional service companion, so deposits are not allowed.
Second, an association may not ask an applicant to provide access to
medical records or medical providers or provide detailed or extensive
information or documentation of a person’s physical or mental
It can get a bit complicated and it is important that an association
balance the rights of all residents in a no pets condo association
against a documented need of an ESA to help one of its residents. If
done properly, the balance is well done. Who, after all, would object