As a society, we often embrace animals as part of our family. Some people’s attachment is so strong they abuse the laws regarding service animals so they can take their pets with them everywhere they go. People who simply wish to bring their pets into public places are able to purchase vests and certificates on the Internet. Pets with bad behavior, admitted into public spaces under the guise of service, are giving real service animals a bad name. Service animals go through rigorous training to assist their disabled owners so bad behavior is an indicator of misrepresentation of a service animal.
In recognizing this misrepresentation, a recent shift in legislation is cracking down on the fraudulent cases. This gives community associations additional direction on how to handle service animal requests.
Section 413.08(1)(d) of the Florida Statutes defines a service animal to mean “[a]n animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability… A service animal is not a pet.” In Florida only dogs, and in some cases miniature horses, are legally recognized as service animals. With the new law, it becomes a second-degree misdemeanor to misrepresent yourself as disabled in order to bring your animal into a public facility. Punishment for misrepresentation is a $500 fine, up to 60 days in jail, and 30 hours of community service that serves people with disabilities. This should give those misrepresenting themselves as needing a service animal pause.
Conversely, for disabled persons a service animal provides a life-saving and invaluable service. Consequently, the law on service animals is intended to protect these individuals and the service animals that assist them daily. If an individual with a disability resides in a condominium and makes a request for a service animal, the association must grant that request. The animal may accompany the individual anywhere the individual goes, and the association cannot charge a deposit or monthly surcharge even if the association normally requires a pet deposit. However, if the service animal is out of control, it is not housebroken, or if its behavior is a threat to other residents, the association can seek its removal.
Unfortunately, what constitutes a legitimate service animal is not easily answered. The issue is even murkier with emotional support or therapy animals. A lot of people don’t understand there’s a distinction between a therapy animal and a service animal.
An emotional support animal is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of the disability, to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. Emotional support animals are typically dogs and cats, but may include other animals. Cases have been cited of parrots, ferrets, flying squirrels, kangaroos, and even snakes serving as emotional support animals.
Associations must also allow reasonable accommodations for therapy animals, even if there is a “No Pets” Policy in place. A therapy or emotional support animal is not afforded unlimited access to public spaces like a service animal. Permission from owners and managers of public spaces must be granted before a therapy animal is admitted.
Service animals, as well as therapy/emotional support animals, provide a valuable and life-saving service for many residents with disabilities. Individuals passing their pets as one of these working animals make it difficult for disabled persons and communities to adequately address the need for true working animals.
This new law targets people who fraudulently claim their pet as a service animal. Nevertheless, community associations must be cautious when addressing reasonable accommodation requests. Even a delay in granting a legitimate request can land the community in hot water. If your community receives an accommodation request for a service or emotional support animal, you should contact your association’s legal counsel immediately.