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New Florida Law Cracks Down On Emotional Support Animals

No compassionate human would begrudge a blind person her seeing-eye dog, but around the country, landlords and property managers in recent years have struggled to accommodate a growing number of "emotional support animals."

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Ashland Busman spends time with Benji, a therapy dog.

A new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week, which took effect immediately, amended Florida’s Fair Housing Act to address the problem. 

With the internet making it easy for dishonest tenants to get around pet restrictions by mail-ordering certificates saying that Fang and Rambo are emotional support animals, property managers often acquiesced, lest they violate housing laws meant to protect people who have legitimate disabilities.

Attorney Joshua Gerstin wrote in a blog post on the law's passage that the problem had gotten "out of control." He outlined some of the key points of the new law that property owners should take notice of. 

Per federal law, housing providers cannot discriminate against a person with an emotional support animal for a disability or a disability-related need. Florida's amended law defines emotional support animal as an animal that doesn't require training but, by virtue of its presence, alleviates symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.

This is different than a service animal, such as a dog or miniature horse, that requires training to aid an individual with a disability.

"A person with a disability or a disability-related need must, upon the person’s request and approval by a housing provider, be allowed to keep such animal in his or her dwelling as a reasonable accommodation in housing, and such person may not be required to pay extra compensation for such animal," the Florida law, SB1084, states.

The property owner can request documentation to support that a person has a disability, such as a housing voucher for a disability or a receipt for disability benefits from a government agency or proof from certain licensed healthcare or telehealth providers or from an out-of-state practitioner that has provided in-person services to the tenant at least once. The property owner can also ask for proof that the animal has met licensing and vaccination requirements. However, landlords can't request medical records or specific information about the tenant's diagnosis. 

"An emotional support animal registration of any kind, including, but not limited to, an identification card, patch, certificate, or similar registration obtained from the Internet is not, by itself, sufficient information to reliably establish that a person has a disability or a disability-related need for an emotional support animal," the law states.

The property owner or manager can develop a routine process for requests for reasonable accommodation for emotional support animals.  

"However, a housing provider may not require the use of a specific form or notarized statement, or deny a request solely because a person did not follow the housing provider’s routine method," the law states. 

A housing provider may prohibit the animal if it poses a direct threat to the safety, health or property of others. 

The bill makes it a second-degree misdemeanor (punishable by up to 60 days imprisonment) for someone to misrepresent themselves as having a disability to qualify for an emotional support animal. It also provides for disciplinary action against a healthcare practitioner’s license if he or she gives information for an emotional support animal without having personal knowledge of the patient’s disability. 

Alas, it doesn't look like the law has any provision to stop Muffy from bringing Fluffy to the grocery store. 

Attorney Dori Stibolt wrote in a blog post that the new law was prompted by a Florida Realtors group concerned about the fraud around this matter, the rights of people with allergies and property owners' inability to designate a housing complex as pet- or animal-free.

"It will be interesting to see the litigation that will likely spin off as a result of this new law as the issue of ESAs is certainly not yet settled," she wrote.