New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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When Pet Owners Bite Back …

There are certain legal requirements regarding the keeping of comfort dogs in a co-op that has a no-pets policy. Under the law, if there has been no effort to hide the animal’s presence in the building and the board hasn’t begun litigation to have it removed within 90 days, then the pet can stay. If the unit-owner has lied about its presence, that’s a different story.

There are several laws on the federal, state, and city levels concerning the rights of people with disabilities to have dogs in their apartments. A disability is defined as a mental or physical limitation that restricts a major life function and also may restrict the use and enjoyment of the disabled person’s home. The definitions actually vary according to different laws. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) does not provide protection for people to keep comfort or service dogs that have not been trained.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 both outline other special questions that a condo board is allowed to ask a prospective unit-owner. One is whether the person has a disability. Another is whether the person has a disability that requires an animal to provide assistance or comfort. Any further questions regarding the disability are not allowed under these statutes.

The New York City and New York State human rights laws allow boards to ask additional questions related to disabilities. They can require a person to demonstrate a disability or show proof of a specific need for a pet in their home. These legal distinctions are very tricky. I always advise my board clients against trying to figure out if somebody is disabled enough to require a service or comfort dog. Instead, the board should seek legal advice.

Service dogs are generally defined as animals that have been trained to perform a specific service, like a seeing eye dog. Comfort animals, however, don’t require any specialized training. A person has to show a particular need for one under the city and state laws.

been trained or certified, dangerous and/or nuisance pets can be forbidden. However, one incident of prolonged barking is not enough to label a pet a nuisance. There has to be an extended pattern of behavior. If the animal scares people in the elevator consistently, and those instances are documented, or if it bites somebody, that’s different. No law will protect that pet.

If a cooperative client has a policy regarding pets, I advise them to make sure it includes clear requirements of the owners (such as regular inoculations and licensing or registration). The policy should also require an owner to keep the pet under control, on a short leash, or, in some instances, even requiring that it be carried. Policies can also specify weight and size limits, although not for comfort animals.

Boards have to be careful because there are reports of cooperatives being fined by the city for not allowing a comfort pet. One Mitchell-Lama cooperative that did not have much money was fined $90,000 by the New York City Commission on Human Rights for refusing to let a shareholder keep a comfort animal. That’s not where you want to be.

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