Condominium associations are often approached by unit owners or tenants requesting an accommodation to have a service animal, even though the animal itself, either because of its species or size, violates an association’s pet policy. Though it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a service animal and a pet, condominium associations cannot afford to make this kind of mistake. Since the law does not treat service animals like pets, neither can condominium associations.
The rights of an individual with disability to use a service animal is protected by federal and Florida law. For example, Florida’s Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental or availability of a dwelling, including any associated services or facilities, because of a person’s disability. Discrimination includes the refusal to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices or services that may be necessary to give a disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. Cases involving service animals typical allege a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.
However, Florida has another law that specifically protects the use of service animals in housing accommodations. Florida’s service animal law, which was amended on July 1, 2015, states that an individual with a disability who has or obtains a service animal is entitled to full and equal access to all housing accommodations. Though this law prohibits charging extra compensation for a service animal, owners are liable for any damage caused by their service animal.
Florida’s service animal law protects individuals with physical or mental impairments that substantially limit a major life activity. Recognized mental or psychological disorders, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and emotional or mental illnesses, are generally considered mental impairments under the law.
The law defines a service animal as an animal trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The work done or tasks performed must be directly related to an individual’s disability, and may include:
- Guiding a person who is blind or visually impaired;
- Alerting a person who is deaf or hard of hearing;
- Assisting with mobility or balance;
- Alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure;
- Helping a person with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors;
- Reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications; and
- Calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack.
Florida’s service animal law makes it a second degree misdemeanor for a housing accommodation to discriminate against an individual with a disability. However, as of July 1, 2015, a person using a service animal who knowingly and willfully misrepresents herself or himself as being qualified to use a service animal is also committing a second degree misdemeanor. If found guilty, this person must perform 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves individuals with disabilities or another organization determined by the court.
The consequences of mishandling a request for a service animal can be severe. Board members must recognize that service animal requests must be treated differently than other requests, and proceed cautiously to avoid unlawful conduct on the part of the association, seeking guidance or counsel, if necessary.
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