There are countless benefits to having a companion animal — from the unconditional love they provide to encouraging exercise and easing loneliness. But an animal can also help to protect against cognitive decline and alleviate the symptoms associated with certain mental health conditions. In fact, emotional support animals (ESAs) provide numerous therapeutic benefits to individuals struggling with mental health issues or suffering from certain emotional conditions. If you require an ESA, it’s essential to be aware that you are afforded certain protections under both Florida law and the federal Fair Housing Act.
An ESA is a companion animal that offers emotional support or assistance to an individual with a mental disability. These animals are not pets. Instead, ESAs are prescribed by licensed healthcare providers (usually mental health professionals) to help alleviate one or more of the symptoms associated with certain psychological conditions.
An ESA does not require any formal training and can be any type of animal but is usually a dog or a cat. To qualify for an ESA, a letter must be issued by a licensed mental health professional or physician verifying their patient’s need for a support animal. However, there is no requirement that an ESA wear a tag or harness indicating that it is a support animal.
It’s crucial to understand that an ESA is not the same as a service dog — and they are subject to different rules and regulations. Service animals are trained to do work or carry out specific tasks for a person with a physical disability. For instance, they might be trained to alert a person who is hearing-impaired of an alarm or guide a person who is visually impaired.
ESAs should also not be confused with psychiatric service dogs. These types of service dogs can assist an individual with PTSD by interrupting anxiety, reminding them to take medication, or making calls in the event of an emergency. Although ESAs and psychiatric service dogs can both help a person with a mental illness cope, an ESA does so with their presence and companionship while a psychiatric service dog is trained to perform certain jobs.
Unlike ESAs — which can be any species — service animals recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are limited to specially trained dogs and in some cases, miniature horses. ESAs are not covered under the ADA and do not have the same legal protections in public places. However, both service animals and ESAs are covered by the Fair Housing Act.
The first step to obtaining an emotional support animal is speaking with a licensed healthcare professional. They can best assess your condition and determine whether an ESA would be beneficial to your treatment. If they believe an ESA can be helpful for your situation, they will provide you with an emotional support animal letter — this is a signed document stating that they recommend an ESA to help you manage your mental health condition.
Housing providers are entitled to open a dialogue to conduct a meaningful review and question the letter if the individual’s disability is not readily apparent and they have reason to question the disability or need for the animal. Healthcare providers are not experts in the Fair Housing Act and they tend to make ESA letters very brief to avoid confidentiality issues. As a result, these letters are usually scrutinized by the housing provider’s general counsel. Therefore, it is important for disabled individuals to consult with someone familiar with the Fair Housing Act, such as an attorney, before submitting a doctor’s letter or other request for an accommodation.
ESAs are commonly used to help alleviate the symptoms associated with:
In order for an emotional support animal letter to be valid in Florida, it must be signed and dated on the licensed healthcare professional’s official letterhead. HUD has recently issued a Guidance (FHEO-2020-01) discussing what is and is not considered reliable documentation to support an accommodation. In addition, Florida laws have changed and now make it a crime to misrepresent an animal as an ESA. It can also be considered a crime under Florida law for a healthcare provider to issue a letter in support of an accommodation if they do not have personal knowledge of the individual’s disability.
Even if your condo or apartment building has a “no pets” policy, the HOA or landlord may be required to provide you with an accommodation for your ESA. Unless the animal would pose a safety or health threat to others, housing providers are prohibited from denying housing to a person who requires an ESA to alleviate symptoms of an emotional disability.
While housing providers cannot discriminate against individuals who require ESAs, Florida passed a law that went into effect on July 1, 2020 that explicitly states what housing providers are (and are not) allowed to do when it comes to ESAs. Significantly, a housing provider is not permitted to request that you disclose your mental health condition or its severity — regardless of the routine processes they may have in place. In addition, a housing provider cannot deny your application because you did not supply them with information related to your disability that they are not allowed to ask for under the law, such as medical records.
But if the disability-related need for a support animal is not readily apparent, a housing provider may request certain information to support the ESA request. For example, they may ask for information that identifies the therapeutic emotional support provided by the specific ESA, a disability determination from the government, or proof of eligibility for housing assistance due to a disability. If more than one ESA is requested, the housing provider is permitted to ask for information regarding the need for each one.
The recently enacted law also provides penalties for those who misrepresent their pet as an ESA — it is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine to knowingly offer falsified documents to a housing provider concerning an ESA request. Those found guilty of this offense must also perform 30 hours of community service for a community service program that serves people with disabilities within six months of their conviction.
If you require an emotional support animal or believe you might benefit from one in the future, it’s best to consult with an experienced attorney who can advise you of your legal rights. The Law Offices of Herb M. Milgrim, P.A. is dedicated to representing clients in condo matters related to emotional support animals.
Serving the needs of clients throughout Florida, we offer skillful advocacy and reliable representation for matters concerning emotional support animals in Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach Counties, as well as Miami, Naples, Brickell, Hollywood, Davie, Pembroke Pines, Hallandale, Sunny Isles, Aventura, North Miami, Boca Raton, and West Palm Beach. In housing matters, we only represent owners — never the condo associations or their boards. To schedule a consultation, we welcome you to contact us at (954) 966-3909.