Service Animals vs. Pet Rules Separating Friend From Fraud

Rule enforcement can often be a point of tension in a condo, co-op or HOA—but when it comes to the potential for sheer acrimony, nothing beats a pet ban. Enacting one can be a heated affair, leading to fights and arguments across the community, and enforcing an existing ban on pets can also result in a massive headache, particularly when it comes to the issue of so-called ‘emotional support animals.’ That’s partly because, according to information provided publicly by the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, based in Washington, D.C., both boards and landlords must make ‘reasonable accommodation’ for any and all disabled individuals—and there are an array of disabilities (some visible to the casual observer and some not) for which ‘reasonable accommodation’ includes the use of a service animal. No decent person—or board, for that matter—would begrudge a disabled individual the use of a service or emotional support animal (ESA), but the proliferation of disingenuous and flat-out phony organizations offering service animal ‘certifications’ has made it difficult for boards to discern which animals are legit, and which ones are pets whose owners are willing to fudge the truth.

In the Doghouse

“I wish I could say otherwise, but when it comes to support animals, the abuse is staggering,” says attorney JoAnn Nesta Burnett of the law firm Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale. “Between the websites that sell certificates, tags, vests, etc., and the medical providers that advertise to write letters for a one-time fee and after a one-time phone consult or by taking an on-line test (where they provide the answers), the abuse is difficult to control.”

For a certain price—usually around $70—the websites Burnett is talking about provide people with badges, vests, or papers for their pets indicating that they are service animals. But according to the pros interviewed for this article, there are no official registries for service animals. The only documentation that indicates if a service animal is legitimate is a doctor’s note – anything else is likely fraudulent.

“We do not accept the tags and certificates or the letters that are from ‘registries’ like the National Service Animal Registry, or from medical providers that advertise,” says Burnett. “There is no recognized registry for ESA’s or service animals.”

According to Michael Bender, an attorney and firm member with Kaye Bender Rembaum, which has offices in Pompano Beach and Palm Beach Gardens, “When dealing with assistance animals like companion pets or emotional support animals, you’re allowed to get documentation from a qualified medical provider—and fair housing regulations have expanded what they consider a qualified individual. For example, in the past it had to be a qualified medical provider, but that’s been expanded to allow for social workers—which I consider qualified medical professionals - and even from people outside of the medical profession.”

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