Stories involving emotional support animals have cropped up frequently in the news in recent years. Usually, the articles tend to focus on the bizarre, such as people bringing peacocks onto airplanes and the like. While these stories may be alternately baffling or amusing, they raise some serious questions about how one can define an emotional support animal and what is considered a reasonable accommodation for a person with an emotional support animal.
Housing co-ops should navigate these waters carefully. You don’t want to face a discrimination lawsuit because you have a strict “no-pets” policy in place. On the other hand, allowing a menagerie into the building can pose its own set of problems.
Support animals are not pets
It’s important to make a distinction between support animals and pets. A support animal provides some degree of assistance to a disabled individual. If a person relies on a support animal, you must make a reasonable accommodation. If a person merely enjoys an animal’s company but is not dependent on the animal, it’s likely a pet, and you can probably enforce your building’s “no-pet” policy.
Can you request documentation of the disability?
Some disabilities are readily apparent to a layperson. For example, a person in a wheelchair who has an assistance dog would clearly require an exception for a service animal. The same would apply to someone who relies on a seeing-eye dog. Things become less clear when the disability isn’t readily observable. You generally can’t tell just by looking that a person suffers from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or autism. In these situations, you may desire further proof of a person’s disability.
You can request some documentation stating the person’s need for an emotional support animal. What you cannot do is demand medical records or ask a person to disclose a diagnosis. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued some guidelines for how to ask questions regarding service animals that do not run afoul of the Fair Housing Act. Following these guidelines can help guide your initial inquiry.
There will always be some tension between balancing the needs of the co-op and the needs of individuals who are entitled to a reasonable accommodation. This is especially true when it comes to emotional support animals. Your co-op board should always seek legal advice before making a decision. Doing so can help ensure a more equitable outcome for all involved.