The law allows people with disabilities who wish to keep their emotional support animals (“ESAs”) in their Florida condos to seek a reasonable “accommodation” from their associations. Key to the success of your request will be knowing what information you need to provide when you request an accommodation and how to be sure that the information is reliable. Providing unreliable or insufficient information may subject you to further demands for information, thereby delaying the process, or even leading to a lawsuit by the association to avoid granting your request. This is especially true in the case of ESA letters or certifications obtained from on-line providers, which are red flags for many condo associations, and are likely to trigger greater scrutiny. The verification requirement for emotional support animals will only be satisfied if the information provided is from a reliable source. Currently, the federal government is working on new guidance to address exactly what “reliable verification” means in the context of a request to accommodate an emotional support animal. Here’s what you need to know.
Federal law prohibits discrimination against disabled residents and requires associations to provide reasonable accommodation in rules, policies, practices, or services when requested. Homeowners may seek accommodation for a service dog or emotional support animal. The first step is a formal request that you be allowed to keep your ESA as an accommodation under the Fair Housing Act. Proper documentation to support your request is critical. The information must be reliable and demonstrate that you meet the FHA definition of disability and that the requested accommodation is necessary to alleviate the difficulties of your disability.
It may be tempting to purchase an inexpensive certification “kit” online and simply provide the certification to your condo association. However, many associations are highly skeptical of such certificates. Upon receiving one, they are likely to request additional documentation, including medical records supporting your claim of disability and records pertaining to your pet, such as its nature, size species, and training. They may keep demanding more and more information — which you will not be able to obtain from an online provider — resulting in a long, drawn out process and often a poor outcome. You may also be turning over confidential medical information that the housing provider is not entitled to. An online provider will be unable to help you avoid being subjected to unreasonable and invasive demands from a condo association to support your request for an accommodation.
HUD has stated that the most reliable form of verification is a letter from a medical provider who has a history of treating the person requesting accommodation. Current guidance requires verification to come from a “medical professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency, or a reliable third party who is in a position to know about the individual’s disability.” There is concern that the new guidance being developed by HUD will further restrict who can validate an individual’s need for an ESA. Requiring verification to come from only a doctor or medical provider would be too restrictive. What is more, thanks to advances in technology, many people have legitimate online and remote relationships with medical providers, especially in rural areas. Refusing all online verification would go too far.
HUD has acknowledged that it is important not to trivialize the issue of service animals because of abuses of the law by online providers. Hopefully, the new guidance will strike a fair balance while also providing clarity on how requests for accommodation should be handled.
Until the government releases new guidance on verification for ESAs, the best course is to consult a Florida condo attorney who understands what is required to support a request for a reasonable accommodation, takes seriously your right to an emotional support animal, and knows when the association is making unreasonable or improper demands for information or unduly delaying your request.
If you need assistance with a request for accommodation from your condo association for your emotional service animal, we welcome you to contact us at (954) 966-3909.