State and federal law guarantee certain rights and protections to people who need the assistance of a service animal or an emotional support animal (often referred to as an “ESA”). To take full advantage of these legal rights, however, there are certain steps animal owners must take. This is particularly true if you live in pet-restricted housing. If you wish to keep a service animal or an ESA in pet-restricted housing, you must request an accommodation from the HOA or Condo Association.
When seeking such an accommodation, you will be asked to submit proof of a disability-related need for the animal. While it may not sound like it should be difficult to provide such proof — particularly in the case of a disability that is obvious — there are certain pitfalls to avoid to ensure that your request will be granted without delay. Most importantly, you must provide a legitimate, reliable service animal letter or ESA letter.
A service animal letter or ESA letter is a letter from a licensed professional (doctor, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional) stating that the individual has a disability-related need for the animal. The letter must comply with specific guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), which include best practices regarding the type and amount of documentation a housing provider may demand in support of a request for an accommodation.
The quality of your ESA or service animal letter will likely make the difference in how your request for an accommodation is treated by your HOA or Condo Association. The most reliable source for the letter is your own healthcare provider. That person will likely have an established relationship with you and be able to provide specific and personal knowledge of your need for a service animal or ESA.
Be sure that your healthcare provider is a licensed professional and that the letter is written on his or her official letterhead and includes license number and direct contact information. The letter must show that you have a disability and a disability-related need for your service dog or emotional support animal.
To be valid, the letter must comply with the requirements of the Fair Housing Act, which define disability as a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Although “mental or physical impairment” and “major life activity” are both broadly defined to include many conditions and activities, the letter must explain in detail how the service animal or ESA assists you or alleviates the emotional effects of your disability.
ESA or service animal letters may be obtained from online providers who offer inexpensive “certification” letters or kits. These often generic letters are almost always a red flag for Associations, and will likely result in your request for an accommodation being delayed and/or denied. You may be subject to additional, more intrusive demands for confidential medical information. What is more, under Florida law it is a crime, punishable by jail time, a fine, and/or community service, to misrepresent the need for an emotional support animal.
Indeed, the HUD guidelines specifically state that “document from the internet is not, but itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.” By contrast, HUD states that a “reliable form of documentation is a note from a person’s health care professional that confirms a person’s disability and/or need for an animal when the provider has personal knowledge of the individual.”
Because the potential consequences of submitting a service animal or ESA letter that is unreliable and/or fails to comply with the relevant guidelines can be quite serious, it is imperative that the process of requesting an accommodation be done properly and professionally. Before obtaining an online certification letter, you should consider consulting an attorney who is knowledgeable and experienced with the federal and state requirements for seeking an accommodation for a service animal or ESA.
If you need assistance with a request to your HOA or Condo Association for an accommodation for your service dog or emotional support animal, we welcome you to contact us at (954) 966-3909. We will ensure that the request is properly supported, that your Association’s response is prompt and fair, 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.
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.