Florida recently enacted a law intended to combat a problem familiar to many New York co-op and condo boards: fraudulent requests for emotional support animals. The Florida law requires stringent verification processes and imposes penalties for violations.
What is an emotional support animal? The Florida law defines it as “an animal that does not require training to do work, perform tasks, provide assistance or provide therapeutic emotional support by virtue of its presence, which alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.” Contrast that with a service animal, which must be trained to perform work or tasks for a person with a disability, such as a guide dog for people who are blind.
The federal Fair Housing Act requires housing providers to accommodate emotional support animals. The Florida law adopts that requirement and provides guidance about the documentation that a housing provider can ask for when considering a request to accommodate an emotional support animal. For example, the provider can request medical verification only when the resident’s disability is not readily apparent, and the provider cannot require disclosure of the resident’s diagnosis or severity of a disability.
Additionally, consistent with federal rules, the Florida law provides that a housing provider is under no obligation to accommodate an animal that poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. The Florida law addresses what type of supporting evidence is and is not legally sufficient when requesting an emotional support animal. Unlike federal law, the state law imposes penalties on those who make or support fraudulent requests. Here are the key aspects:
Online Registries and Certifications Are Insufficient. For health care and other practitioners to provide reliable information about a resident’s disabilities and need for an emotional support animal, the provider must have personal knowledge of the resident’s disability.
Out-of-State Support Is Limited. The Florida law places limitations on out-of-state health care and other practitioners – excluding licensed telehealth providers – who certify these requests. To document that a resident has a disability, an out-of-state practitioner must have provided in-person care or services to the resident on at least one occasion.
Criminal Penalties. It is now a misdemeanor in the second degree if a person falsifies information or documents, or knowingly provides fraudulent information or documents to support a request for an emotional support animal – or if that person otherwise knowingly and willfully misrepresents the resident’s disability status or needs.
In jurisdictions like New York, where co-op and condo boards are faced with abusive practices, regulators may take note of this development and consider enacting similar measures to combat fraud where emotional support animals are concerned.
John W. Egan is a partner at the law firm Seyfarth Shaw.