DEFINITION OF SERVICE/SUPPORT ANIMAL
First, we need to get our heads around the difference between a pet, service animal, and support animal. Legally protected animals as defined by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) are service dogs, service animals, assistance animals, companion animals, facility animals, comfort animals, therapy animals, ESA’s (Emotional Support Animals), and other similar terms. Examples of these include dogs – seeing eye dogs, dogs who help pull wheelchairs, or help epileptic folks, and miniature horses trained individually to help persons with disabilities perform tasks or jobs.
This is the issue: certainly, there are Americans who have legitimate disabilities. Some of those disabilities legitimately require that they have a service animal of some kind, and you are not allowed to discriminate as a landlord in most instances. Landlords do have the right however, to ask prospective tenants two specific questions regarding his or her service animal: what the animal has been trained to do and if the animal is required because of a disability. Property owners and managers may not ask specific questions about the person's disability or ask for documentation regarding details of the animal's training, and they may not ask for a pet deposit for a service animal.
That being said, how do you handle it when you have dishonest tenants asserting that they have a disability, when they are just trying to exploit laws as a means of establishing personal gain? If you suspect that the tenant has acquired legitimate documentation in a way that is questionable, then you will have to find another way of disqualifying potential tenants from tenancy that is not involved with either their “condition” or the animal they use to help “manage” it.
RESTRICTIONS AND GETTING AROUND THEM
Here are restrictions on you as a landlord in a situation where the claim for needing a service animal is questionable:
- You cannot ask what the disability of the person with such an animal is, even if you cannot tell by looking.
- You cannot ask for medical documentation for the animal or its owner.
- You cannot ask the service animal to demonstrate anything. However, you can ask what the animal does, even if you do not ask the owner to make the animal do its tasks.
- You cannot ask for any identifying documentation of the animal. It is legitimate to ask if the animal is a trained service animal, or an emotional support animal (ESA).
TAKING THE RIGHT ACTIONS
Property Owners and Managers may or may not have pet policies in place, and there will be instances where prospective tenants will try to slip one past you. Figure out if the animal is an ESA or a Service Animal.
- Ask what it does, but do not ask it to show you what it does.
- Ask how long the person has had the animal, and if they will be able to live without it.
- Determine if you have a real issue on your hands: it's ok to have an old lady have her Pomeranian, other times there may be those who lie and can be disqualified on other factors, just be sure to outline them clearly.
FLORIDA LAW AND SERVICE ANIMALS
Under Florida’s service animal law, people with disabilities who have service dogs and other assistance animals are entitled to full and equal access to housing. As a Property Owner, you are not allowed to request that such a tenant pay extra to have a service animal, however, the tenant is liable for any damages the service animal causes to the property or to another person.
The federal Fair Housing Act requires housing facilities to allow service dogs and emotional support animals, if necessary, for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the home. To fall under this provision, the tenant must have a disability and must have a disability-related need for the animal. In other words, the animal must work, perform tasks or services, or alleviate the emotional effects of the disability to qualify.