Assistance Animals in Florida Condominiums
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Many Florida condominium associations have breed, weight, size, and other limitations on animals, but that does not mean those limitations are enforceable against every owner. Florida condominium associations are subject to compliance under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) and are prohibited from engaging in discrimination based on a disability. The FHA prohibits discrimination grounded in the unit owner’s personal characteristics and also with regard to the unit owner’s assistance animal. The breed, weight, and size limitations are inapplicable to assistance animals. Thus, as an example, if the association bans Dobermans but a unit owner has a Doberman as an assistance animal, the association may be required to allow the unit owner to keep the Doberman as a reasonable accommodation. It is important to analyze the provisions in the FHA to determine the responsibility and duties of the association with regard to FHA compliance.
The FHA defines persons with a disability as: (1) individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment; and (3) individuals with a record of such impairment. If a person has a disability, a housing provider is only obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation upon the unit owner’s request for an accommodation. The owner must request an accommodation that would provide an exception to an established condominium rule, based on his disability. Without a request, the condominium association has no knowledge that the individual needs an assistance animal and is not on notice of the necessity to maintain such an animal.
Once an accommodation request is received, the condominium association may ask the following two questions:
(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability – i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?
Upon review of the accommodation, if the disability is not obvious or known, the housing provider may also request reliable disability-related information that: (1) is necessary to verify that the person meets the Act’s definition of disability (i.e., has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities); (2) describes the needed accommodation, and; (3) shows the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested accommodation. If the disability is apparent without the inquiry, no further questioning may occur after the initial two questions.
Most condominium associations are aware of the obligation to allow assistance dogs that are mobility and guide dogs, but commonly forget about emotional support dogs. Assistance animals are expansively defined to include emotional support animals that assist persons with certain disabilities by providing companionship. It is important to note that the term “assistance animal” includes far more categories of support animals than the term “service animal.” While it is true that emotional support dogs can be excluded from public places, this is not the case with condominium associations.
A condominium association should check its records to see if a particular unit owner has requested an accommodation for an assistance animal, as a request for an accommodation is the first step in allowing the unit owner to keep an animal. If there has been no such request, the condominium association should note the failure to request the accommodation in a letter to the unit owner. However, if there has been such a request, the condominium association may inquire as to only a few respects of the disability and based upon such inquiry, the board determines whether an accommodation is necessary.