Do Landlords Have to Accept Emotional Support Animals?
When you own an investment property, you want to make sure that it remains in good condition so that it is profitable. For many landlords, this means forbidding or strictly limiting the ability of tenants to have pets. But what happens when a tenant wants to have an emotional support animal (ESA)?
Under both federal and Florida law, landlords have to accept emotional support animals provided that a tenant provides the appropriate documentation. Even if you have a no-pets policy in place, a tenant could still bring in an ESA because they are not considered pets. However, there are some exceptions to these laws - and a landlord may still be able to deny a prospective tenant’s application or evict a tenant for other reasons.
At Eaton Realty, our property management services include handling thorny subjects like emotional support animals. We give landlords peace of mind knowing that we understand the law, and how to manage your properties without running afoul of it. Contact our office to learn more about how we can help you with your Hillsborough County rental properties.
What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
Under Florida law, an emotional support animal is an animal that does not require training to do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, or provide therapeutic emotional support by virtue of its presence which alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. Like service animals, ESAs are a type of assistance animal. However, service animals are specially trained to perform tasks or provide assistance to a person with a disability.
An ESA can be almost any animal that gives its owner emotional support just by its presence. In fact, the Washington Post recently featured a man who has an alligator named WallyGator as his emotional support animal. An individual may have an emotional support chicken, snake, horse, or any other type of animal - although the most common ESAs are dogs and cats.
The key feature that distinguishes an ESA from a pet is that its owner has a disability and the animal alleviates or assists with the disability in some way. The support that an ESA provides is fairly broadly defined. It could be something as simple as a person feeling less stressed when they pet or cuddle with their dog.
Emotional support animals are not specially trained, and they do not have to be certified. For an animal to be considered an ESA, a person just needs to get a letter from a medical or mental health provider that states that they have a disability and that the animal is necessary to help them cope with the disability. For example, a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may obtain a letter from their therapist that states that they require an ESA to cope with the symptoms of their PTSD.
What Should I Do If a Tenant Wants an Emotional Support Animal?
Both Florida law and the federal Fair Housing Act prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. While a no-pets policy may not appear discriminatory on its face, if an individual with a disability requires an assistance animal, then refusing to make reasonable accommodations for that individual may be viewed as a form of discrimination.
For landlords, this means that you typically have to accept an ESA even if you have a no-pets policy in your leases. If the tenant has a disability and provides a letter from a licensed healthcare provider that states that their ESA alleviates symptoms of that disability, then you may be required to accept the ESA.
You may also have to waive a pet deposit as a reasonable accommodation. You cannot increase the rent on an existing tenant if they request an ESA.
A landlord is allowed to consider the administrative, financial, or other consequences of allowing an animal onto the premises. However, landlords will usually have a difficult time proving that a request for an ESA would be an undue burden.
If a tenant submits a request to have an emotional support animal in your property, you are permitted to verify the need for the animal. As a landlord, you can ask that the tenant provide a letter from a doctor, therapist or other medical professional. This letter must verify that the tenant has a disability and the way in which the ESA alleviates the symptoms of their disability.
A disability can be almost anything. The Fair Housing Act defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment which limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities can include caring for one's self, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.
Some types of disabilities may be readily apparent, such as blindness, deafness, paralysis, or a condition that requires an assistive device to walk. Other disabilities may be invisible, like mental illness (such as anxiety, depression or PTSD), alcoholism, or even cancer. As a landlord, you can request proof that a tenant has a disability, but the tenant does not have to reveal their specific disability.
The letter from a medical professional must also state that the support animal is necessary for the tenant because it provides support that alleviates at least one of the identified symptoms or effects of the existing disability. A landlord does not have to accept any animal that provides some benefit to the tenant. The medical professional must connect the tenant’s possession of the animal with an alleviation of at least one symptom of the disability.
Importantly, the request for an accommodation must be reasonable. If allowing a particular animal would cause you financial hardship, then you may be able to reject it. For example, if you rent out a small apartment in a building in downtown Tampa and a tenant wants to have an emotional support horse, you could probably refuse to allow this ESA because having a horse in a small apartment is not a reasonable accommodation. It would also likely cause significant damage and financial hardship.
Because any animal could technically be an ESA, landlords cannot generally impose breed restrictions (such as forbidding a pit bull as an ESA). Unless the specific animal poses a direct threat based on its conduct - not its reputation - you probably cannot deny the tenant’s request to have it as an ESA.
Are There Any Exceptions to This Rule?
Under the Fair Housing Act and Florida law, the prohibition on discriminating against people with disabilities only applies to certain “housing providers.” Generally, if you are a small landlord, you may be exempt from these requirements. This includes:
In addition, if the animal causes damage or becomes a threat to other tenants in the building, you may refuse to allow it to remain in your rental property. Just because an animal is an ESA does not mean that a tenant has a right to disturb or disrupt other tenants or neighbors. You may ask the tenant to have the animal be trained or go to obedience lessons, or ban it from certain common areas. If the animal remains a problem, then you may take steps to evict the tenant.
If the animal causes injuries to others, it may be reported to the local authorities. Depending on the situation, animal control may require that the animal be euthanized.
Although you cannot charge a pet deposit for an emotional support animal, you can hold them responsible for any damage that their pet causes. For example, if their emotional support cat has accidents on the carpeting, you could charge the tenant for the cost to replace the carpet.
As noted above, if making an accommodation would cause an undue financial hardship, then you can reject the tenant’s request for an ESA. Keep in mind that “undue financial hardship” is a legal standard, and cannot simply be because you don’t want any pets in your rental properties. If you have questions about whether your situation qualifies for the exception, you should reach out to a landlord-tenant attorney.
Finally, if a prospective tenant is not otherwise qualified to rent from you or if a current tenant violates their lease in another way, you could reject their application or begin the eviction process. For example, if an applicant does not meet the minimum income requirements to rent your property, then you could reject their application on that basis. However, if the rejection or eviction is seen as a pretext (i.e., an excuse to avoid allowing an ESA), then it may be considered a form of housing discrimination.
How Do I Know That My Tenant’s ESA Letter Is Legit?
Emotional support animals have become very popular. Given that there are very minimal standards to have an ESA, it isn’t surprising that websites have sprung up that charge a small fee for an ESA letter. In some cases, tenants without disabilities may seek out and obtain these letters to get around a no-pets policy.
These types of scams put landlords in a bad position, because your options for verifying the veracity of their ESA letter are limited. While you can talk to your tenant about their request, you cannot accuse them of lying. Keep in mind that many disabilities are invisible, and you generally cannot ask your tenant for specific details about their disability. If you do, it could be used against you if a Fair Housing or civil rights complaint is filed against you.
Florida law does allow landlords to confirm a disability in some ways. While you cannot ask for details about a person’s disability, if it is not reasonably apparent, you can ask for information that supports that the person has a disability. This may include a governmental disability determination, receipt of disability benefits, or proof of eligibility for housing assistance due to a disability.
You can verify the validity of the healthcare professional’s license by checking the state database for licensed professionals. You could also ask your tenant to have their doctor or therapist complete a form for the reasonable accommodation. However, unless your tenant gives you written permission to contact their provider, you cannot reach out to the therapist or doctor and speak to them about your tenant. Doing so may be a violation of the Fair Housing Act - and the professional cannot talk to you about theirpatient without a HIPAA release.
In Florida, if a tenant’s letter came from an out-of-state provider, they must have provided in-person care or services to the tenant on at least one occasion. In other words, if your tenant has never actually seen the out-of-state healthcare professional, then the letter is not valid.
Talking with a tenant about their disability can be a minefield. You cannot ask them:
In other words, the only information that you will likely get about your tenant’s need for a reasonable accommodation will come from the letter from their healthcare provider. A tenant is also free to disclose this information voluntarily. To reduce the risk of legal liability, an experienced property manager can handle requests for ESAs on your behalf.
What Could Happen If I Violate Federal and State Laws Regarding ESAs?
If a tenant or prospective tenant believes that they have been discriminated against because of their disability, they may file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or file a federal or state lawsuit against the landlord. A HUD complaint must be filed within 1 year of the date of the alleged discrimination, while a civil rights lawsuit must typically be filed within 2 years.
The consequences of a HUD complaint and/or a civil lawsuit could be severe. If an administrative law judge (ALJ) or court finds that you violated the Fair Housing Act or the Florida Civil Rights Act, then you could be liable for damages. These damages may include actual financial losses as well as things like humiliation, emotional distress, and pain and suffering. You may also be subjected to a civil penalty of up to $16,000 for a first offense, and may be required to pay reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. You may also be required to rent to the tenant and allow them to have the animal.
Violations of these laws can lead to steep, financially ruinous consequences. For this reason, it is important to work with a property manager who has experience handling requests for ESAs and other reasonable accommodations.
How Eaton Realty Can Help
The laws surrounding emotional support animals can seem unfair to landlords. However, they were established to ensure that people with disabilities are able to obtain housing - even if they need a service or emotional support animal. Understanding the rules surrounding ESAs can help you avoid committing a costly violation.
The property management team at Eaton Realty is well-versed in both Florida and federal law on emotional support animals and other types of reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. We will work with you to ensure that your interests are protected - and that you comply with the law. To learn more, fill out our online contact form or call us at 813-669-4474 to talk to a seasoned Tampa area property manager.