By: Steven M. Williams
Your community has a no-pet policy. When John was moving in, he inquired about the pet policy and was told that no pets are allowed. Several weeks after John moved in, your community manager saw John walking a dog in the community. When confronted about the no-pet policy, John said that the dog was his girlfriend’s, and he is simply watching it for the weekend. After your manager told John that pets are not allowed to visit, he then claimed that the dog was an emotional support animal (ESA) needed to accommodate his disability. To prove his case, John showed your manager a certificate, which he obtained from an internet website, stating that John’s dog is a certified ESA. Does this scenario sound familiar?
Is John really disabled, and is his dog really an emotional support animal that he needs to accommodate his disability? If yes, then you must allow John’s dog to reside in the community with him. But, could it be that John is just trying to get around your no-pet policy?
On Oct. 24, 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law the Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act, Act 118 of 2018 (House Bill 2049), which took effect on Dec. 23, 2018. The act is designed to assist communities (condominiums, planned developments, and rental communities) in evaluating a resident’s claim that he or she requires an assistance or service animal (which by law are not “pets”) as an accommodation for a disability. The act recognizes the struggles that communities have faced recently in dealing with fraudulent requests by residents who are not disabled but simply want to avoid having to comply with pet rules.
The act defines an assistance animal as an animal, other than a service animal, that qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under federal, state or local laws, and it expressly includes emotional support animals. Under the act, a service animal is an animal, other than an assistance animal, that qualifies as a service animal under federal, state or local laws. In short, the act covers any service, emotional support, companion or therapy animal, whether or not specially trained or certified, that accommodates a disabled person in a way that allows him or her to enjoy housing to the same extent as a nondisabled person.
Importantly, the act accomplishes four things:
It confirms that communities are entitled to ask for, and receive, written verification of a resident’s disability and disability-related need for an assistance or service animal (unless the disability or need is obvious).
It requires that the person verifying the disability or disability-related need for the animal have “direct knowledge of the person’s disability and disability-related need for the assistance animal or service animal.” This requirement should reduce the number of fraudulent internet verification forms that are currently presented to landlords and associations.
It creates criminal penalties for violations of the act by residents and their verifiers. First, the act provides that a person who misrepresents a disability or need for an assistance or service animal commits a misdemeanor of the third degree, punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Second, a person who misrepresents an animal as being a service or assistance animal commits a summary offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. Finally, a person who fits an animal that is not an assistance animal or service animal with a harness, collar, vest or sign indicating that the animal is an assistance animal or service animal commits a summary offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
It provides associations and landlords immunity from liability for injuries caused by a person’s assistance animal or service animal that is permitted on the property as a reasonable accommodation for a disabled person.
When residents who do not have a legitimate need for an assistance or service animal fraudulently state that they do, it creates burdens for associations, landlords and disabled residents who do need assistance or service animals. It is hoped that the enactment of Act 118 will limit the number of false requests, allowing associations to focus on legitimate requests by disabled residents.
To prepare for the implementation of Act 118, associations and landlords may want to consider revising their current disability accommodation request forms to include information regarding the act.