Thursday, December 01, 2005

What is a comfort animal?

The Federal Fair Housing Act "FHA" prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals in addition to other protected classes. A residential housing provider is normally required to make reasonable accommodations in its policies, procedures, and practices that are necessary to afford a disabled individual with an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling. In communities that restrict pets, that means that the community cannot prohibit seeing eye dogs to someone legally blind. Some individuals have attempted to use the FHA to permit them to keep pets that would otherwise be prohibited by the community. They have claimed that they are disabled and that an animal would make them feel better.

There are a number of problems with this claim. First, to the extent that these individuals are not truly disabled, they trivialize and undermine the law that is intended to provide needed protections for those who are truly disabled. When the law was first adopted, it was assumed that disability was something that was easily proven. The Courts have limited the scope of disability in a number of ways. Therefore, an individual may not be legally disabled despite a note from their doctor. We normally recommend to our clients that they obtain a written certification from a doctor to validate the disability unless it is obvious.

Second, two courts have ruled that a comfort animal is not covered by the reasonable accommodation provisions of the Fair Housing Act. In re Keena Homes Cooperative Corp., 210 W. Va. 380, 557 S.E. 2d 787; Fair Housing - Fair Lending ¶18,328 (2001) andPrindable v. AOAO 2987 Kalakaua, 304 F.Supp. 1245, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23744 (D. Haw. 2003) have ruled that in order for an animal to be covered by the reasonable accommodation provisions of the law, it must be individually trained to ameliorate the effects of the disability. The 9th Circuit is currently hearing the case and a decision is expected in a few months.