Court Ruling Provides Guidance Regarding Emotional Support Animals

Posted on May 15, 2012 by

Under the federal and Florida Fair Housing Acts, housing providers, including community associations, must make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices and services when necessary to afford a disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.  One accommodation that associations are often asked to make is to permit a resident to keep an “emotional support animal” in violation of community rules.

A recent ruling by the Middle District of Florida in the case of Bhogaita v. Altamonte Heights Condominium Assn., Inc. provides helpful guidance to community associations regarding how much information an association may require regarding an applicant’s disability and requested accommodation before the association will agree to grant the resident a waiver from relevant restrictions.  Prior to the ruling in Bhogaita, the most illuminating case that dealt with the question was Hawn v. Shoreline Towers Condominium Association, Inc.

In Hawn, the plaintiff petitioned the association to remove the restriction prohibiting members from keeping pets.  After that effort failed, Hawn raised the argument that his dog, “Booster”, was an emotional support animal he was entitled to keep under the Fair Housing Act.  After his second request was rejected by the association due to a lack of supporting documentation, Hawn brought suit alleging violations of the FHA.  The District Court ruled summarily in favor of the association, and Hawn appealed.  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, holding that, “[T]he duty to make a reasonable accommodation does not simply spring from the fact that the handicapped person wants such an accommodation made. Defendants must instead have … the ability to conduct a meaningful review of the requested accommodation….”.  Many associations may have relied on the Hawn case in requesting considerable information from residents regarding their requested accommodations and the medical necessity thereof.

The recent decision in Bhogaita will likely have a chilling effect on such wide-reaching inquiries by community associations.  In Bhogaita, the plaintiff, a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety and depression, requested a waiver from the association’s rule prohibiting pets over 25lbs for his dog, “Cane,” after receiving a demand from the association to remove the dog.  Bhogaita submitted a letter from his treating physician stating that Bhogaita’s dog assisted him in coping with his disability and served to ameliorate otherwise difficult to manage psychiatric symptoms.  The association continued to demand additional information, including how long Bhogaita had been receiving treatment, how many sessions he’d had with his doctor, the specific training that his dog received, why his disability required him to have a dog in excess of the weight restriction, a list of all medications he was taking,  the number of counseling sessions he participated in per week, whether his disability was permanent or temporary, and details of the prescribed treatment moving forward.

Bhogaita brought suit alleging the association constructively denied his request for a reasonable modification and improperly sought detailed information beyond what the association needed to know in order to make a determination in the matter.  The association moved to dismiss the complaint.  In denying the motion, the judge stated that Bhogaita had  provided three letters from his physician indicating that he suffered from PTSD, that he had a therapeutic relationship with his dog “Kane,” that he requested a reasonable accommodation necessary to afford him the ability to use and enjoy the dwelling, and that, at that point, the association was required to respond to his request.  “By persisting in its intrusive quest for more- and largely irrelevant- information,” the court stated, “[the association] constructively denied Bhogaita’s request.”

As Bhogaita demonstrates, community associations must exercise caution when handling requests for reasonable accommodations from disabled individuals.  If your association has questions regarding whether a request for an accommodation must be granted or whether your association may require additional information in order to make its determination, consult with your association attorney.

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