A recent case out of Florida highlights the tension between federal disability laws and their practical application for community associations. The case, Bhogaita v. Altamonte Heights Condominium Association, Inc., arose out of a military veteran’s need for an emotional support animal due to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The association’s governing documents prohibits animals weighing more than 25 pounds, and when it learned that his dog weighed more than 25 pounds, the association notified the owner that he would have to remove his dog from the premises.
The owner requested that the association him to keep his dog to serve as an emotional support animal. He supplied the association with a letter from his physician confirming his disability and the need for an emotional support animal. He supplied another letter from his physician stating that his animal was the specifically prescribed emotional support animal. In response to additional request for information from the association, he supplied a third letter from his physician which directly responded to the association’s questions.
The association continued to ask for more detailed medical information, including a sworn statement from the owner’s physician regarding the owner’s disabilities. When the owner failed to respond to those requests, the association notified him that he would be required to remove his dog if he did not respond to the association’s demands for more medical information. He then sued the association for failure to make a reasonable accommodation under the federal and state Fair Housing Acts and for discrimination as a result.
The court found that the association’s letter requesting further medical details, including a sworn statement by his doctor, went beyond the scope of a “reasonable inquiry.” Even though the association never actually fined the owner, or required him to remove the dog, the court found that by “persisting in its intrusive request for more – and largely irrelevant – information,” the association had “constructively” denied the owner’s request for a reasonable accommodation.
What is the take-away for community associations dealing with requests for reasonable accommodation? If an owner comes to you with a letter from a medical professional establishing a disability and prescribing treatment (i.e., service animal, companion animal, etc.) for that disability, the board needs to accept that as grounds for a request for reasonable accommodation. The definition of “reasonable” is fact-specific and depends on the circumstances of each case. If you are unsure what you can/should do in response to an owner’s request for a reasonable accommodation, consult with an attorney experienced in both community association law and disability law to ensure you are not crossing any lines.
If you have any questions we can answer, please feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly. We look forward to continuing this conversation with you in our future posts!