• April 2, 2024

    N.J. Supreme Court Clarifies Procedure To Consider Request By Disabled Person For Emotional Support Animal

    It is generally recognized that pets provide emotional support for their owners, whether disabled or not. But when must a community association that restricts pets allow a resident to keep an emotional support animal (ESA) that otherwise would not be permitted? The N.J. Supreme Court recently weighed in on that issue. In the case of Players Place II Condominium Association, Inc. v. K.P. and B.F., the Court provided clarification for both associations and residents on how to determine whether an accommodation allowing an ESA must be provided to a resident pursuant to the N.J. Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

    In Players Place II, a unit owner advised the condominium association that he and his girlfriend, B.F., were considering adopting an ESA that exceeded the association’s weight limit of 30 pounds and asked what medical documentation the association required. The association responded that it would not allow the overweight dog. Nevertheless, B.F. moved in with the animal, the association sued to remove the dog, and the residents counterclaimed, alleging violation of state and federal antidiscrimination laws. B.F. maintained that she had an emotional disability and that the dog was an ESA that helped decrease her symptoms. She explained that she needed a large dog because she had grown up with a large dog that she found comforting and that smaller dogs generally are “loud and yappy” and increased her anxiety.

    In a strange twist, the trial judge concluded that B.F. was not handicapped or disabled within the meaning of the LAD or the federal Fair Housing Act but that she should be allowed to keep the oversize dog on equitable grounds because it helped reduce her mental health symptoms. Both sides appealed, and the Appellate Division found that B.F. was disabled but that there was no medical evidence that she needed a dog larger than 30 pounds. Nevertheless, the majority upheld the trial court’s decision on the equitable grounds. Based on a dissent by the third judge on the panel, the association appealed as of right to the Supreme Court.

    The Court confirmed that New Jersey looks to federal law against discrimination as a helpful source to interpret the LAD, although the LAD’s definition of disability is broader than the federal definition. The Court then discussed the procedure for an association to evaluate a request for an accommodation to a pet policy. The relevant issues in such a case involve fact sensitive inquiries. A “housing provider,” which includes a community association, is not required to do everything possible to accommodate a disabled person. The cost to the provider, both financial and administrative, and the burden to the resident must be considered. If the alleged disability and the need for the ESA are not obvious or already known, the housing provider may request reliable documentation from the treating heath care professional.

    The Court noted that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Guidance publication states that assistance animals are not pets. The N.J. Supreme Court did not go that far but did state that ESAs “are different from pets and are not subject to general pet policies.” In any event, under federal law, a resident may request a reasonable accommodation to keep an assistance animal before or after acquiring the animal, and a housing provider may not summarily reject a request.

    In summary, the Court established the following guidelines:
    • A resident is entitled under state and federal law to request an accommodation to a pet policy in order to keep an emotional support animal contrary to association restrictions.
    • The resident must first demonstrate that he or she has a disability under the LAD.
    • The person also must show that the requested accommodation may be necessary to afford an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling.
    • The association may ask for information that confirms that the person has a disability and needs a support animal, e.g., a determination from a government agency or a letter from a health care professional.
    • If the association claims that the requested accommodation is unreasonable, it has the burden of proving unreasonableness.
    • As part of the process, the parties should engage “in good-faith, interactive dialog to exchange information, consider alternative options, and attempt to resolve or narrow any issues.”

    The Court held that there is no requirement that a mental health professional recommend or prescribe an ESA. Whether the animal has been trained also is not relevant because ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks. HUD has stated that housing providers may not limit the breed or size of a dog used as a support animal, so B.F. was not required to show that she had a specific need for a dog that exceeded the weight limit. Rather, she had to show that the accommodation she requested, that is, the support animal, would help ameliorate one or more effects of her disability so as to enhance her quality of life.

    In addition, the Court commented that although a resident may acquire an ESA before requesting permission from the association, the resident bears the risk of not being able to show entitlement to the animal. Therefore, it is preferable if possible to engage in a collaborative conversation in advance. The Court also noted that “service animals,” defined by statute, are distinct from ESAs and are not subject to the balancing test discussed in this case.

    Before the Supreme Court, the association conceded that B.F. was disabled. Nevertheless, the Court stated that the record showed she had a disability under the LAD. The Court concluded that B.F. was entitled to a jury determination whether she needed the dog as an accommodation for her disability, and the association was entitled to a jury determination whether the accommodation sought was unreasonable. Accordingly, it reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the case for a trial.

    Because an improper denial of an accommodation for a disabled person may result in significant damages, penalties and attorneys’ fees being awarded against an association, it is important that the association consult with legal counsel if it questions whether a requested accommodation should be provided.

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