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 tenants are adopting four-legged friends, it’s common for apartments to have a “no-pet” tenant law. So does that mean your landlord can refuse a service animal? It turns out the the law is on the tenant’s side. If you know how to interpret it, that is. Let’s look into the tenants rights you should be aware of.
What Does the Tenants Rights Say About Service Animals?
The first thing you should know is that law requires landlords and property managers to accommodate tenants with disabilities. This applies for federal, state, and city tenant law. Federal protection for mentally disabled persons against housing discrimination is created under two statutes. One, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and two, 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 is a violation of federal law and tenants rights. Keeping in mind, this violation happens against a mentally disabled person who meets the requirements of the statutes. But what is the definition of a disability?
This gray area is the center of the no-pet policy debate of tenants rights.
What Legally Constitutes a Disability?
Section 504 and the FFHA have a similar definition of a “qualifying disability.” Both tenant law 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 tenants rights and 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 Tenants Rights?
We could spend all day deconstructing contradicting, nuanced legal terms. But it’s clear that these broad definitions are in place to protect, disabled individuals. Not harm them.
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, tenants 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 don’t require documentation for your service animal. However, as Tobener points out, a note from a medical provider never hurts to avoid unnecessary friction. The more you know about your federally protected tenants rights, the better you can help clarify any confusing 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, tenants win in this case.
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