Ever wonder if it’s even possible to keep a so-called emotional support animal out of your community? Sometimes it seems like all a pet-loving Unit Owner has to do to get around the pet rules in a condominium or homeowners association is go online, or ask a friendly doctor, and get a certificate or letter declaring your favorite pet to be an emotional support animal. As Groucho Marx might have said “Say the secret word and you can keep your dog.” Not so fast said one Federal Court Judge, who realized that the pet-loving Unit Owner has to actually prove a case, not just get someone to sign a piece of paper.
In a recent case that we handled in Philadelphia, a dog-loving Unit Owner tried to overturn a state court order requiring her to remove her two adult male Chihuahuas from her condominium Unit. The Unit Owner claimed that her Chihuahuas were emotional support animals, prescribed by her physician. She testified that she suffered from panic attacks most of her life, and that these attacks affected her ability to sleep. She told the Court that she takes her dogs everywhere, even that they sleep with her. She presented only a single letter, co-signed by a social worker and a physician, that said that “an emotional support animal is recommended to help manage her symptoms by emotional stability and to meet the requirements of activities of daily living.” Unfortunately for the Unit Owner, her physician was unable to provide any corroborating testimony and did not further explain what was meant in the letter.
People often forget that the Fair Housing Amendments Act requires accommodations. In this case, the Federal Court saw through the transparent attempt to misuse the law on reasonable accommodations. Rather than simply accepting some magical words in the letter, the Court looked for evidence that the Unit Owner actually had a disability. Evidence of sleep disturbance or reliance on the animals for companionship are not proof of a disability. Unspecified “mental health issues” are not proof of a handicap.
The moral of this story is that an association can look past the magic words in a letter supposedly validating the need for an emotional support animal. When the history and facts support the inference that the claim is made up, there is no real proof of an actual disability.