If you own or manage residential rental property in Colorado, you may have noticed a growing trend in tenant requests for “reasonable accommodations” in the form of emotional support animals (ESAs). Reasonable accommodations are defined as when a tenant asks a landlord to make a change in an existing rule or policy so they may have an equal opportunity to enjoy the unit and surrounding property. The Federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act require landlords to provide reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, and ESAs typically do qualify as such an accommodation. This means that if your property is a “no-pet” property, you would be required to modify your policy to allow an animal that is claimed to be an ESA.
Landlords cannot refuse to rent to tenants with disabilities nor can landlords ask applicants and tenants about the details of any conditions. Sometimes the disability is apparent, such as a tenant in a wheelchair, but many times a person’s disability is not obvious to observers. An ESA is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of an individual’s mental or psychiatric disability. ESAs are typically dogs and cats, but may include other animals.
Many homeowners, property managers, and homeowners associations have become all too familiar with health professionals producing letters for individuals seeking to keep an emotional support animal in a property based on an online health questionnaire. Unlike service animals under the ADA, standards governing emotional support animals are virtually non-existent and there are no restrictions on the types of animals that qualify as assistance or companion pets. Associations frequently end up relying on statements made by unlicensed individuals who may be out of state and never even met the individuals making requests. The standards are vague enough that landlords and property managers may face a risk if they fail to make a proper determination regarding a tenant’s request for a reasonable accommodation.
House Bill 16-1201 (“HB 1201”) was introduced to address a gaping loophole used by tenants to keep dogs and cats in communities which ban them, but was killed by the Democrats in the House Health, Insurance & Environment Committee in March on a 7 to 6 party line vote.
HB 1201 would have regulated how licensed professionals in Colorado must approach providing recommendations for ESAs under the Colorado Fair Housing Act. In particular, this bill would have required that licensed physicians, physician assistants, nurses, psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, licensed professional counselors and addiction counselors must make the following findings prior to recommending that an individual should be permitted to have an emotional support animal:
- The licensed professional must make a finding that the individual requesting the emotional assistance animal has a disability as defined by Colorado law orthat there is insufficient information available to make a determination that the individual has a disability; and
- The licensed professional must actually meet with the individual requesting an emotional support animal IN PERSON, prior to making a finding of whether the person has a disability which necessitates the emotional support animal.
This bill would have all but done away with the concept of online ESA approvals that require little more than a valid credit card to obtain. It would have given landlords a greater ability to confirm a tenant’s true disability and would have decreased the current abuse of the existing policy.
While House Bill 1201 has been defeated, there is now a new bill (House Bill 16-1308) that has been introduced and referred to the Judiciary Committee. Federal and state law require places of public accommodation to allow service animals trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled person. Under this bill, it would be a misdemeanor for a person to intentionally and fraudulently misrepresent an animal in his possession as his service animal for the purpose of obtaining any of the rights or privileges granted by law to persons with disabilities that have service animals. This bill does not have the same type of impact on landlords since it applies to places of public accommodations, but further indicates that whether the issue is emotional support animals or service animals, there is a growing legislative reaction to perceived abuses of statutes designed to help persons with disabilities.
Many of the more recent court cases involving landlords, property owners, tenants, and animals center on the laws, rules, and regulations about ESAs, not service animals. To outsiders, it is difficult to distinguish between an ESA and a pet. As a landlord, it can be difficult to ensure that you are following federal, state, and municipal laws regarding reasonable accommodations. However, even if you believe you are in compliance with the law, it does not prevent an applicant or tenant from filing a discrimination claim if you deny the reasonable accommodation request. If a prospective tenant files a complaint with HUD, which is usually turned over to the Colorado Civil Rights Division (“CCRD”), you are required to thoroughly respond to the complaint in a timely manner. This response can be time-consuming with requests for documentation, telephone interviews, rebuttals, etc. If the CCRD finds probable cause for discrimination, there is a mandatory conciliation that the landlord and tenant must attend, at which time the CCRD will attempt to negotiate a settlement between the parties, which usually involves a monetary payment to the tenant. If that conciliation does not result in a resolution, the matter must then be set for a trial in front of an administrative law judge.
In general, the consequences of denying a reasonable accommodation request can vary depending on location. If you find yourself with a request for a reasonable accommodation, your existing community pet restriction policies are likely inapplicable and the consequences of denying a request could be costly, both in time and money. The best course of action for most landlords is to seek legal counsel before responding to these types of requests.