How to Handle Service Pet Policies without Discriminating

Let’s start the discussion and analysis with a hypothetical fact pattern:

Tenant Victor wants to have a service dog in his apartment. You are the resident manager of a mid-sized apartment complex of 50 units. Your property management company has a “no pet policy” in the apartment complex, with the exception of non-biting gold fish. Victor appears to be the model of good health. He works out at the apartment complex fitness center every day.   You get a letter that Victor claims to have a disability that requires the need of a service pet.  Victor claims that the nature of disability is confidential. In fact, he suffers from a psychological and emotional condition that has been diagnosed as “post Donald Trump Election stress disorder.”

He has been diagnosed by a psychiatrist with a mental illness that includes depression and stress over the election result, and suffers depression when he watches CNN, FOX, and CNBC. The psychiatrist has diagnosed his condition as a disability that may last 4 years or 8 years depending on if Donald Trump gets reelected. He suffered a recent strange unexpected relapse when he learned of President Obama’s speech fee which required Victor to have medication. His neighbors, mostly registered republicans, are not fond of Victor. He is hypersensitive to political news events and outcomes for both parties. When he drinks tea from Starbucks he gets nervous because it reminds him of the Tea Party platform.

After speaking to Victor on the phone, he tells you that he desires to have a comfort animal in his apartment to calm his nerves, and the proposed pet is named “Vera.” He sent you an email with a picture of Vera. His proposed comfort animal, Vera, is a small German Sheppard with no history of dog biting and no history of loud barking. He purchased the animal from a pet store in Berlin called Sheppardco. The doggy was shipped in a crate from overseas to Victor’s doorstep.   Victor has taken the dog to obedience school and has made an effort to get the dog certified as a service animal to help him calm his frazzled nerves.

As a property manager, what issues should you be aware of?   

  • Victor may have real disability if it can be shown with basic minimal documentation.
  • If the disability can be documented with a doctor’s note, you will have to allow him to have a pet like Vera even though it is a “no pet” apartment complex.
  • If you take a hard line and discriminate against Victor because of his alleged disability, you could be sued by Victor, or the state or federal government for disability discrimination.

What CA state and federal housing laws apply to this situation?

California State Housing Laws that Protect Disabled Persons

Individuals with physical and mental disabilities have the right under state law to rent, lease, or buy housing accommodations free from discrimination due to a disability.  (See Chapter 1 for definitions of disability; Cal. Civ. Code, ” 51, 54, subd.(b), and 54.1; Cal. Gov. Code, ” 12926, subds. (i) and (k), 12955 and 12955.3.)

Cal. Civil Code Section 54.1 states in pertinent part,

“(6) (A) It shall be deemed a denial of equal access to housing accommodations within the meaning of this subdivision for a person, firm, or corporation to refuse to lease or rent housing accommodations to an individual who is blind or visually impaired on the basis that the individual uses the services of a guide dog, an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing on the basis that the individual uses the services of a signal dog, or to an individual with any other disability on the basis that the individual uses the services of a service dog, or to refuse to permit such an individual who is blind or visually impaired to keep a guide dog, an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing to keep a signal dog, or an individual with any other disability to keep a service dog on the premises.”

(C) (i) As used in this subdivision, “guide dog” means a guide dog that was trained by a person licensed under Chapter 9.5 (commencing with Section 7200) of Division 3 of the Business and Professions Code or as defined in the regulations implementing Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-336).

(ii) As used in this subdivision, “signal dog” means a dog trained to alert an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing to intruders or sounds.

(iii) As used in this subdivision, “service dog” means a dog individually trained to the requirements of the individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, minimal protection work, rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items.

Federal Housing Laws that Protect Disabled Persons

Federal disability laws and regulations also apply to this situation. The Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. 3601 et seq., prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing, such as landlords and real estate companies as well as other entities, such as municipalities, banks or other lending institutions and homeowners insurance companies whose discriminatory practices make housing unavailable to persons because of race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all types of housing transactions. The Act defines persons with a disability to mean those individuals with mental or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities. The term mental or physical impairment may include conditions such as blindness, hearing impairment, mobility impairment, HIV infection, mental retardation, alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic fatigue, learning disability, head injury, and mental illness.  The term “major life activity” may include seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self, learning, speaking, or working. The Fair Housing Act also protects persons who have a record of such an impairment, or are regarded as having such an impairment.

Current users of illegal controlled substances, persons convicted for illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance, sex offenders, and juvenile offenders are not considered “disabled” under the Fair Housing Act, by virtue of that status. The Fair Housing Act affords no protections to individuals with or without disabilities who present a direct threat to the persons or property of others. Determining whether someone poses such a direct threat must be made on an individualized basis, however, and cannot be based on general assumptions or speculation about the nature of a disability.

42 U.S.C. Section 3604(f) states in pertinent part that “as made applicable by section 3603 of this title and except as exempted by sections 3603(b) and 3607 of this title, it shall be unlawful—

(1)   To discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap of—

(A)   that buyer or renter,

(B)   a person residing in or intending to reside in that dwelling after it is so sold, rented, or made available; or

(C)   any person associated with that buyer or renter.

It shall be unlawful to

(2)   To discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling, because of a handicap of—

(A)   that person; or

(B)   a person residing in or intending to reside in that dwelling after it is so sold, rented, or made available; or

(C)   any person associated with that person.

(3) For purposes of this subsection, discrimination includes—

(A)   a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises except that, in the case of a rental, the landlord may where it is reasonable to do so condition permission for a modification on the renter agreeing to restore the interior of the premises to the condition that existed before the modification, reasonable wear and tear excepted.

(B) a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling; or

Note that the language of the federal statute uses the term “handicap,”   Pursuant to 42 U.S. Code Section 3602 (h)

(h) “Handicap” means, with respect to a person—

(1)   a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities,

(2)    a record of having such an impairment, or

(3)   being regarded as having such an impairment . . . “

What is a “reasonable accommodation” for purposes of the Act that a landlord has to provide to a disabled person?

A “reasonable accommodation” is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces. Since rules, policies, practices, and services may have a different effect on persons with disabilities than on other persons, treating persons with disabilities exactly the same as others will sometimes deny them an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. The Act makes it unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.

To show that a requested accommodation may be necessary, there must be an identifiable relationship, or nexus, between the requested accommodation and the individual’s disability.

Are there any instances when a provider can deny a request for a reasonable accommodation without violating the Act?

Yes. A housing provider can deny a request for a reasonable accommodation if the request was not made by or on behalf of a person with a disability or if there is no disability-related need for the accommodation. In addition, a request for a reasonable accommodation may be denied if providing the accommodation is not reasonable – i.e., if it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider or it would fundamentally alter the nature of the provider’s operations. The term is “reasonable accommodation,” not “every accommodation.”

The determination of undue financial and administrative burden must be made on a case-by-case basis involving various factors, such as the cost of the requested accommodation, the financial resources of the provider, the benefits that the accommodation would provide to the requester, and the availability of alternative accommodations that would effectively meet the requester’s disability-related needs.

When a housing provider refuses a requested accommodation because it is not reasonable, the provider should discuss with the requester whether there is an alternative accommodation that would effectively address the requester’s disability-related needs without a fundamental alteration to the provider’s operations and without imposing an undue financial and administrative burden. If an alternative accommodation would effectively meet the requester’s disability-related needs and is reasonable, the provider must grant it.

An interactive process in which the housing provider and the requester discuss the requester’s disability-related need for the requested accommodation and possible alternative accommodations is helpful to all concerned because it often results in an effective accommodation for the requester that does not pose an undue financial and administrative burden for the provider.

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