A recent case from Florida highlights the need for Associations to carefully familiarize themselves with the laws regarding service dogs and other types of trained animals that might be needed by persons with disabilities.
In Sabal Palm Condos. of Pine Island Ridge Ass’n v. Fischer, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36040 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 19, 2014), Lawrence and Deborah Fischer owned a unit within the Sabal Palm COA. Deborah suffered from multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair; she had difficulty operating light switches, opening or closing doors, retrieving objects, and other tasks involving strength or motor skills. Deborah obtained a trained service dog, named Sorenson, from Canine Companions for Independence, a well-known service dog training entity. Sabal Palm had a pet policy permitting only a cat or fish, or, with the permission of the board, another pet weighing less than 20 pounds. Sorenson was larger than 20 pounds. Deborah asked Sabal Palm to accommodate her disability by allowing her to keep Sorenson even though he was a dog larger than 20 pounds.
Sabal Palm responded by requesting that Deborah produce copies of her medical records from all of her healthcare providers who diagnosed or treated the disability that she claimed made a service dog necessary. In addition, Sabal Palm requested that she provide “all documents relating to the nature, size and species of dog, as well as all documents regarding any training it received.” In response, Deborah provided Sabal Palm with a letter from Sorenson’s trainer describing the tasks he was trained to perform; she also enclosed a photo of herself in her wheelchair with Sorenson.
Sabal Palm, not satisfied, asked for yet more documentation. Deborah responded by providing a medical history form from her doctor, demonstrating that the tasks she needed assistance with were exactly the types of tasks Sorenson could perform. Sabal Palm was still not satisfied and asked for even more documentation. Deborah provided voluminous additional information, making her disability, as well as her need for Sorenson, obvious.
Sabal Palm, still not satisfied, informed Deborah that she could keep Sorenson while the matter was sorted out. It then filed a lawsuit against the Fischers, seeking a declaratory judgment that it need not accommodate Deborah by allowing her to keep Sorenson.
The court concluded that Sabal Palm had violated the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). Deborah’s disability was so obvious, and her need for Sorenson had been so clearly established, that Sabal Palm’s conduct was, as a matter of law, a failure to reasonably accommodate her disability. The fact that Sabal Palm allowed Deborah to keep Sorenson while its decision was pending did not matter; “a housing provider that refuses to make a decision unless a requester provides unreasonably excessive information could be found to have constructively denied the request by ‘stonewalling’ and short-circuiting the process.”
Under the FHA’s standards, housing provider is entitled to seek information from an allegedly disabled person in order to establish the existence of the disability and the necessity of the accommodation. In response to a request for a reasonable accommodation, a housing provider may request reliable disability-related information that (1) is necessary to verify that the person meets the Act’s definition of disability, (2) describes the needed accommodation, and (3) shows the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested accommodation. However, the Association’s inquiry cannot be highly intrusive. In most cases, an individual’s medical records or detailed information about the nature of a person’s disability is not necessary, and asking for such detailed records can create liability for an Association.
Even more interesting in this particular case is the fact that the court held that the board’s president could be held personally liable for his conduct in the matter. This will be discussed more fully in the next installment of this blog post.
As in all matters affecting community associations, it is important to consult your Association’s attorney and your governing documents to make sure all applicable laws are complied with.
 For a summary of the laws surrounding reasonable accommodations under the FHA generally, see http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/huddojstatement.pdf. For an excellent discussion of the laws specifically surrounding service animals and the problem of “fake” service dogs, see http://sbp.senate.ca.gov/sites/sbp.senate.ca.gov/files/Background%20Paper%20for%20Fake%20Service%20Dog%20Hearing%20%282-14-14%29.pdf.