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Wagging around the law: feigning disability to get around a building’s “no pets” policy

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Many people have legitimate disabilities for which they qualify for and rely on service dogs.  But what happens when your residential building has a “no pets” policy?  Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs and other assistance animals, trained to assist owners with a diagnosed disability, are classified as separate from pets.  Federal, state and city laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the New York State Human Rights Law and various local laws, such as the New York City Human Rights Law, prohibit discrimination by housing providers, including owners, real estate agents, managing agents, building superintendents, cooperative and condominium boards.  Discrimination in this context includes refusing to make: (1) reasonable modifications to a dwelling or common use area to accommodate a person’s disability, and (2) reasonable accommodations in policies or services if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing.  Such accommodation can take the form of a waiver of a building’s “no pets” rule for a disabled resident’s service animal.

While this seems fairly straightforward, as people become more informed of how broadly the term “disability” is defined, the number of residents applying for waivers is increasing exponentially.  The proof required for a waiver differs from building to building, but generally, you need to show that you have a disability within the meaning of the law and that your service animal is medically helpful to your disability.  For some buildings, a detailed doctor’s note may suffice, but unfortunately, these notes can be all too easy to obtain, especially if you already have the animal.  The federal government does not keep track of all service animals, and a quick internet search reveals a wealth of online resources dedicated to providing fake certificates, vests, and even doctor’s notes.

While the law limits the types of questions your building can ask regarding the nature of your disability, some buildings are performing more in depth investigations to determine the sincerity of the waiver application.  These investigations may include research regarding the medical professional who drafted your letter, and a search of social media sites to determine whether the applicant has posted any conflicting information regarding a purported disability.  Indeed, disabled individuals with legitimate service animals may face more scrutiny from their residential buildings as a result of fraudulent service animals and falsified waiver applications.  While New York Agriculture and Markets Law Section 118 makes it a violation punishable by a fine to affix to any dog a false identification tag, property owners do not have many options unless the animal constitutes a legal nuisance.

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