By Ari Chazanas, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Lotus West Properties
You have probably seen service dogs in public assisting their owners with tasks and making their lives easier. You have also likely heard of amusing stories of unusual animals riding along with their owners on airplanes as emotional support animals or “ESAs.” This article will give you short history of service and emotional support animals, describe the differences between the two, and provide advice on what you should do when you receive an accommodation request from a tenant.
Dogs are by far the most common type of service animal and the only animals that qualify as “service animals” under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). As far as 1 A.D., there are records of guide dogs assisting blind people that were found on European wood carvings and Chinese scrolls, but exactly when dogs began assisting the disabled is unknown. Other early record of guide dogs assisting the visually impaired was recorded at a Parisian hospital in the 1750s. However, much later during World War I, the widespread use of modern guide dogs began as many soldiers were left blinded by mustard gas. From then on, several organizations were created to train dogs for the visually impaired and today, dogs not only help people who are blind, but also those who have hearing impairments, sensory disabilities, and other special needs.
So, what exactly defines a service animal? As mentioned earlier, Title II and III of the ADA restricts the definition of a service animal to a dog (and in some cases, miniature horses), and more specifically, one that is trained to assist a person with a disability, which could be physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual. Service dogs may be any breed of dog that perform tasks such as alerting their owners of certain sounds, sights, pressing buttons, or reminding them to take medication. Because these service dogs play an essential role by assisting with everyday tasks, they have full public access rights and are legally protected under the ADA, meaning owners can take them almost anywhere without being denied access.
You may be wondering about the difference between service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs). While they commonly get confused and the terms are used interchangeably, the key difference is that emotional support animals do not perform specific tasks and serve only a companion role to their owners—in other words, the “work” they do is just being there! Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not restricted to dogs and miniature horses and may often be other domestic animals. Emotional support animals are prescribed by mental health professionals to patients with diagnosed psychological or emotional disorders (in comparison to service animals, which serve people with physical disabilities as well), such as depression or panic attacks, which is why they must have calm and friendly temperaments and be comfortable around people. For an animal to be officially classified as an emotional support animal, the owner must have a letter from a licensed mental health professional.
Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not necessarily trained to work with a specific owner and can instead offer support in hospitals or schools. However, emotional support animals are not a subcategory of service animals, and they are not protected under the ADA. While they do not have full public access rights, the Fair Housing Act recognizes emotional support animals, as opposed to pets, as “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities. This means that a property with a “no pets” policy must accommodate someone with an emotional support animal unless it is too big to live in the residence. Furthermore, property owners may not charge their tenants additional pet fees for emotional support animals such as pet rent, cleaning fees or additional security deposit.
So, as a landlord or apartment building owner, what else should you do if you get an accommodation request or encounter a situation in which you are unsure if an animal is a service or emotional support animal? Under the Fair Housing Act, denying housing to a person because they have a service or emotional support animal, or prohibiting the service animal in the residence, is illegal. Additionally, dog age or breed restrictions cannot apply in the case of service or emotional support animals. Landlords also cannot evict a tenant because they acquired an emotional support animal. However, tenants are responsible for any damage the emotional support animal causes to the property.
Contrary to popular belief, service animals are not required to wear specific vests, identification tags, or harnesses identifying them as such, and these accessories would not constitute sufficient documentation. The tenant must; however, provide documentation from a mental health professional that their animal provides support of their disability. Landlords have the right to verify that the letter is authentic and from a licensed professional by checking that the letter includes the professional’s contact information and license information, then checking the validity of the license. They are also allowed to request a Reasonable Accommodation Form, which would be filled out by the professional. Landlords should not contact the professional directly, as that would be a violation of the patient’s privacy rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or the Fair Housing Act. Other documentation that landlords are permitted to ask for includes identification of the service animal and copies of the animal’s medical records to ensure they are in good health and do not pose a threat to other tenants.
However, there are some things landlords are never permitted to ask for. Landlords are not allowed to inquire about the specific disability a tenant has (such as asking questions like “How severe is your disability?” or “Do you take medication?”) or ask to see the tenant’s medical records, ask for a service animal’s official certification. These actions could be considered discrimination and in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
There are a few exceptions in which a service animal or emotional support animal can be denied. This includes buildings with 4 or fewer units where the landlord occupies one of the units, single-family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker, hotels and motels, and private clubs. , if the animal itself is illegal, poses an immediate threat to the health or safety of other tenants, or is too big for the residence to be reasonably accommodated, service or emotional support animals can also be denied.
While service animals and emotional support animals are extremely valuable and help people with disabilities, you need to know your rights and your tenant’s rights under the Fair Housing Act. As a landlord, it is your responsibility to treat tenants with respect and trust when getting an accommodation request.
Ari Chazanas is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Lotus West Properties. Lotus West Properties is a property management firm based in West Los Angeles and was recently voted the “Southland’s Best New Property Management Firm” by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. You can reach them at (323) 380-2783 or contact Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.