In my last post I talked about the benefits of setting clear pet restrictions in your community. But you may be wondering how HOA pets rules could affect service animals – and your compliance with the Fair Housing Act.

Legally, a service animal is just what it sounds like: an animal that provides a necessary service for its owner. The obvious examples would be seeing-eye dogs, or even dogs that assist the deaf. Few would argue the need for a service animal in these cases.

However, the term “companion animal” can get a little — well — hairy.

The legal definition of a companion animal is far less obvious and a very fine line to walk. Companion animals also provide therapeutic or medical benefit to the owner. But this assistance comes on a deeper, perhaps psychological or emotional level. Unfortunately, the less-obvious nature of companion animals can result in many people questioning their legitimacy.

…or abusing the system.

Not surprisingly, the fuzzy (yep, I said it) logic of companion animals leads some pet lovers to reach for ways of keeping an animal that they don’t actually need.

According to the Fair Housing Act, HOA’s are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for residents with service and companion animals. However, if the animal becomes a nuisance, there is also a legal obligation to protect your other residents by enforcing the rules. After all, they have rights and expectations too.

So, how do you strike the right balance?

  • This is a no-brainer, but always get the help of an attorney when drafting HOA by-laws. Your laws need to be as clear and loophole-free as possible.
  • Ask for proof. If the condition is not apparent, HOAs have the right to ask for medical documentation to prove that the animal is needed. However, due to privacy laws, you cannot ask for details about the owner’s condition.
  • Be aware that some will abuse the system. One HOA was actually — legally — obligated to allow an animal because of a note from a gynecologist’s assistant. True story! Whether or not this could happen where you live depends on local laws. But that is why you…
  • Never decide on a request for such an animal that would violate the by-laws without consulting an HOA attorney. You must provide reasonable accommodations for service animals, period. Failure to do so means risking a hefty fine.

The bottom line?

Be careful. Always consult qualified HOA managers and attorneys when adopting, defining, and enforcing HOA pet rules and policies – especially when it comes to service or companion animals. A clear policy will go a long way to avoiding the common problems, but the last thing you need is a “dog fight” that could result in legal action.

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