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Service Dogs and Support Animals: Here is What You Need to Know! – By Dale Alberstone, Esq.

Posted on 01. Sep, 2016 by in all

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Flying home on American Airlines this past July on a six hour leg from Boston to Los Angeles, the woman seated next to me placed her small Poodle on the airplane’s cabin floor just in front of her feet.  After I made a few comments to her about how cute her puppy was (although it could have used a good bath), she volunteered that “Foxy” was a “service dog.”  While the lawyer in me tended not to believe that, I refrained from inquiring, “Oh really?!  What type of service does your dog perform?” 

Instead, I asked her what the airline’s policy was relative to a service dog.  She replied that that if Foxy is a service dog, he could fly for free.  I then asked if American required her to show any documentation establishing that Foxy was, indeed, a service animal.  She replied, “No,” and then presented a subtle grin.

That incident has inspired me to write this month’s column so as to brief landlords and management companies as to when they must allow a dog or other animal to reside in an apartment unit.  Stated in a slightly different manner, my discussion this month addresses the circumstances by which a housing provider may enforce a “no pets” policy in a lease so as to bar the tenant or applicant from bringing in a dog, cat, pig or other four-legged creature.

That law is complex and is separately legislated by both the State of California and the Federal government, but I will clarify it as best I can.

In general, there are three types of animals in issue, namely: service animals, support animals and pets.  True service animals and true support animals are not pets.

A service animal is a dog that is trained to perform services for a person with a disability, such as guiding a blind person, alerting a deaf person to an imminent hazard, fetching dropped items, opening doors, ringing doorbells, pulling a wheelchair, activating elevator buttons, steadying a person while walking, helping a person up after a fall, and assisting someone who is having a seizure.

As defined in the federal American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a service animal in the context of public accommodations is defined as “Dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”  Common examples are guide dogs and signal dogs, which assist with sight or hearing impairments. 

Under the ADA and California law, in addition to dogs, a miniature horse (which typically weighs under 100 pounds) may also qualify as a service animal for an individual with a disability if the equine has been specifically trained to perform tasks or work for the benefit of the individual’s disability.  But AOA members typically do not encounter horses, so I will not further discuss them.

A support animal (sometimes referred to as a social animal, therapy animal, companion animal, emotional support animal, and assistant animal) is an animal used to assist with therapy goals, such as animals which help alleviate emotional or social symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and difficulties regarding social interactions.  Support animals are not specially trained.  Their presence merely improves a tenant’s inability to otherwise live independently and fully use their living environment.

In either case, the service dog or support animal must accommodate a person with a disability.  That means that the tenant (or rental applicant) must have a physical or mental impairment that limits (or in some cases “substantially” limits) one or more major life activities, or has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment. 

Pets are domesticated animals which are kept for pleasure rather than utility.

Notwithstanding a “no pet” provision in a lease or rental agreement, a tenant with a disability who has a physical or mental impairment that limits (or in some cases “substantially” limits) one or more major life activities or has a record of an impairment, is allowed to have a service dog or support animal live in that resident’s apartment unit.  Both Federal and State law trump and nullify any lease provision to the contrary.

If it is not apparent or otherwise known to the lessor or management company  that the tenant or rental applicant has a disability (cf.: a blind person obviously has a disability), then the housing provider may pose the following questions to the tenant or applicant:

  1. Is your dog a service animal?  If so, is your dog required because of a disability you have?  If so, what work or tasks has your animal been trained to perform?
  2. Is your dog (or other animal) a support animal? If so, do you have a disability that limits one or more of your major life activities?  If so, does the disability create a need for you to have your dog (or other animal) live with you?

Bear in mind, however, the housing provider may not inquire of the tenant or applicant about the nature of the disability.  The theory is that the disability is confidential and such an inquiry might impermissibly embarrass the resident.

If the tenant or applicant who does not have an obvious disability (or a disability already known to the housing provider), requests that an animal be allowed to live in the apartment unit either as a service or support animal, the lessor may require the resident to provide documentation from a physician, psychologist or other qualified health provider that he/she has a disability and that the disability creates a need for him/her to have a service dog or support animal. 

Both California law and federal law independently govern the right of a tenant to have a service dog or support animal in rental housing accommodations.  While there are differing nuances between the laws of the state and federal governments, one significant difference is that California’s definition of a disability is broader than federal law because the disability in California need only “limit a major life activity.”  It need not “substantially” limit a major life activity.  A “major life activity” includes a person’s physical, mental or social activities.

On the other hand, the Federal Housing Amendments Act of 1988 requires that the disability “substantially” limit one or more major life activities. 

With respect to rental housing units in California that AOA members own or manage, they should follow the more restrictive California law which prevents them, as the landlord or management company, from excluding such an animal if the tenant’s disability merely limits (without consideration of whether it “substantially” limits) one or more of the resident’s major life activities.

If the tenant or rental applicant does not have any type of disability (as I have explained it above), then a “no animal” provision in a lease would prevent the tenant or applicant from bringing his/her dog or other animal into her unit.

Similarly, if the animal is a pet (because it does not fall within the definition of either a service dog or a support animal), then the “no animal” provision in the rental agreement may be enforced.

Finally, a housing provider may prevent a service dog or support animal from living in an apartment if (1) the animal will damage the property or is a danger to other tenants, and (2) no reasonable accommodation can be made for the tenant which would avoid those problems. 

Concluding Remarks

When authoring this article, I telephoned a customer service representative of American Airlines to inquire about its policy of allowing a dog to accompany a passenger during flight. 

The spokeswoman advised that if the passenger notified the airline in advance of the flight that he/she would be bringing on board a service dog, American would allow it if either (1) the passenger provided American with a written note from a healthcare professional that the dog is a service dog for the individual, or (2) the dog wears a harness and the harness is appropriately marked with a tag or placard saying “Service Dog.”

On the other hand, the representative informed me that if the dog was for emotional support, the passenger would be required to provide a letter from a healthcare provider that the comfort animal was necessary for the mental or emotional stability of the passenger.

Fortunately, in the context of service dogs, landlords and management companies are not compelled to allow canines to live in a unit merely because the tenant outfits the animal with a harness and a “Service Dog” placard. 

Perhaps some of the disparate treatment of service dogs versus support animals has to do with criminal penalties.  In California, it is a misdemeanor (and thereby theoretically self-policing), punishable by 6 months of incarceration or a $1,000 fine, for an owner to tag and represent that a dog is a service dog when knowing it is not.  No such similar criminal act is committed by falsely claiming an animal is a support animal. 

Finally, bear in mind that only certain limited questions can be asked of the tenant, as discussed above, and a written memorandum or letter signed by an appropriate healthcare professional can be required if the person’s disability is not apparent or otherwise known to the lessor or management company. 

Dale Alberstone is a prominent litigation and transactional real estate attorney who has specialized in real property law for the past 39 years.  He has been appointed to periodically serve as a judge pro tem of the Los Angeles Superior Court and is a former arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association.  He also testifies as an expert witness for and against other attorneys who have been accused of legal malpractice.

Mr. Alberstone has been awarded an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell.  An AV rating reflects an attorney who has reached the heights of professional excellence and is recognized for the highest levels of skill and integrity. You may Google “Dale S. Alberstone” for further background.          

The foregoing article was authored on August 1, 2016.  It is intended as a general overview of the law and may not apply to the reader’s particular case.  Readers are cautioned to consult an advisor of their own selection with respect to any particular situation.

Questions of a general nature are warmly invited.  Address correspondence to Dale S. Alberstone, Esq., ALBERSTONE & ALBERSTONE, 1900 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 650, Los Angeles, California 90067.  Phone:  (310) 277-7300.