In a blow to owners of emotional support animals, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has just issued a final rule that will limit the animals on airplanes; disabled travelers can bring service dogs only. Airlines will not be required to permit emotional support animals (ESAs) to accompany passengers. Set to go into effect in early 2021, the new rule represents a definitive statement by the federal government on what has been a controversial issue.
The federal agency stated that it was rewriting the rules partly because passengers carrying unusual animals on airplanes “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.” It also cited the increasing frequency of people “fraudulently representing their pets as service animals.” Whether other federal and state agencies will follow suit and further tighten restrictions on accommodations for ESAs remains to be seen. Stricter guidelines on accommodations for ESAs in housing have already been enacted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The two most significant changes in the new DOT rule are that a service animal is now defined as a dog (airlines are no longer required to accommodate miniature horses, cats, rabbits, and birds) and airlines are now permitted to treat ESAs as pets and are not required to consider them service animals.
The new rule, which imposes strict requirements for travelers seeking to bring service animals on airplanes, highlights the complexity facing disabled individuals who rely on the assistance of service dogs or ESAs. Now that Florida has criminalized the misrepresentation of the need for an ESA and Florida HOAs and Condo Associations are routinely delaying or denying requests for accommodation for an ESA based on inadequate documentation, the importance of consulting an experienced attorney to guide you through the process of seeking accommodation cannot be overstated.
The rule defines a service animal as a dog that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Airlines are required to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals, and, importantly, cannot require psychiatric service animal users to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional of the passenger’s need for the animal.
As to documentation, airlines are permitted to require passengers traveling with service animals provide a DOT form attesting to the animal’s health, behavior, and training, and, if the animal will be on a flight that is 8 hours or longer, a DOT form attesting that the animal can either not relieve itself or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner.
It can be challenging to get an accommodation for an ESA in pet-restricted housing, particularly if the disability is not readily observable. Florida’s recently enacted law criminalizing the misrepresentation of the need for an ESA, and the state’s requirement that an ESA owner provide a letter from a healthcare provider with personal knowledge of the person’s disability to support an accommodation request, make clear that the process is complicated and can have disastrous consequences if not handled properly.
As an experienced Florida condo attorney can tell you, one of the main pitfalls to be avoided is relying on a “certification” letter to support a request for an accommodation for an ESA. Submitting such a letter to your HOA or Condo Association is almost always a red flag and will likely result in an outright denial of your request or a delay in the process, during which your Association will make further, often improper, demands for confidential medical information concerning your disability and need for an ESA.
We can assist you with your request for an accommodation from your HOA or Condo Association for an ESA or service animal from start to finish to make sure it gets done correctly and that you receive written documentation of the approval from the Association, to avoid any future challenges or complications.
We serve the legal needs of individual condominium owners, home owners and cooperative owners throughout the State Florida, including 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. We never represent the associations or their boards so we always know who we are fighting for.
If you need assistance with getting your emotional support animal approved in pet-restricted housing, we welcome you to contact us at (954) 966-3909. Please note that free case evaluation is by telephone and does not include legal advice. Office consults with legal advice are available on a flat fee basis.