It’s no secret that Millennials love their pets. According to recent data, 57 percent of Millennial households own a dog or cat, while another 20 percent plan to get one in the future. And while more and more renters are adopting four-legged friends, it’s not uncommon for apartments to have a “no-pet” policy. So does that mean your landlord can refuse a service animal? It turns out the the law is on the renter’s side — if you know how to interpret it, that is.
What Does the Law Say About Service Animals?
The first thing you should know is that federal, state, and city laws require landlords and property managers to accommodate tenants with disabilities. Federal protection for mentally disabled persons against housing discrimination is created under two statutes: Section 504<of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FFHA).
These statutes claim that if a “reasonable accommodation” enables a disabled person to better enjoy a unit — such as a service dog — the landlord must be providing. And while neither statute clearly defines a “reasonable accommodation,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held in 1981 claimed that waiving a no-pet policy can be a reasonable accommodation.
With this in mind, enforcing a no-pet policy against a mentally disabled person who meets the requirements of the statutes is a violation of federal law. But what is the definition of a disability?
This gray area is the center of the no-pet policy debate.
What Legally Constitutes a Disability?
Section 504 and the FFHA have a similar definition of a “qualifying disability.” Both state that a disability includes:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities;
- A record of such an impairment;
- Or being regarded as having such an impairment.
State laws tend to be even broader, opening the door for further interpretation. The New York City Human Rights Law’s definition of disability includes “physical, medical, mental or psychological” impairments. And California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act outlines two categories of disability: mental and physical, with each category containing “its own specific definitions.”
What Are Your Federally Protected Rights?
We could spend all day deconstructing contradicting, nuanced legal terms. But it’s clear that these broad definitions are in place to protect — not harm — disabled individuals.
And if anything, federal law is clear that a tenant must in fact have a disability that limits “major life activities.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) speaks directly to this issue, and outlines these as functions such as “caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.”
Given this definition, major life activities are…basically anything.
ADA regulations don’t require service animals to have a license or identification — so long as they meet regulations. According to Joseph Tobener, tenant rights attorney at Tobener Law Center, service and support animals are even not pets.
“They are an integral part of treatment plans for tenants with a psychiatric or physical disabilities,” he explains. “This rule applies even if a lease contains a ‘no-pet’ clause,” says Tobener.
So if a tenant requires it, the landlord cannot refuse a service animal and must make a reasonable accommodation — no ifs, ands or buts about it.
Do You Need Documentation?
According to the ADA, landlords aren’t allowed to require documentation for your service animal. However, as Tobener points out, a note from a medical provider never hurts to avoid unnecessary friction. And the more you know about your federally protected renter’s rights, the better you can help clarify any confusing or contradicting local laws.
“The landlord cannot request the specific diagnosis from the tenant, but if a tenant feels comfortable disclosing a specific diagnosis, it may make the request more palatable to the landlord,” Tobener says. “A landlord who denies a disabled tenant a support or service animal is exposed to liability for actual damages, punitive damages, treble damages, emotional distress damages, and attorney fees.”
Despite the legal complexity surrounding service animals, renters win in this case.