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The Delicate Art of Culling Bogus Comfort Animals

Marianne Schaefer in Board Operations on August 22, 2019

Bayside, Queens

Support Animals
Aug. 22, 2019

Warren Schreiber is the long-time board president of Bay Terrace Cooperative Section 1 and a co-founder and co-president of the Presidents’ Co-op  and Condo Council, which speaks for upwards of 50,000 co-op and condo residents in eastern Queens. So Schreiber is no stranger to political battles. But lately he’s been seeing a new kind of skirmishing at his co-op, which has a no-pets policy.

The co-op’s attorney, Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at Hankin & Mazel, explains: “Every board meeting I go to, requests for comfort- and emotional-support animals are on the agenda. It’s mostly dogs, but I already had one case where a shareholder claimed the medical need for a pig!”

Such requests are potential land mines for co-op and condo boards. Federal, state, and city laws provide protections for emotional-support pets – which are not to be confused with service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs. Even if a building has a no-pets policy, the board must provide a “reasonable accommodation” for a resident with a doctor-certified disability who requests a support animal. If the board rejects such a request and an investigation by the Commission on Human Rights finds evidence of discrimination, the building can face fines running into six figures, plus damages.

Schreiber had a theory about the suspicious proliferation of requests for support animals at his co-op, so he decided to do a little investigating. “One of our shareholders produced a doctor’s certification claiming the need for a dog for emotional support,” he says. “The document came from somebody who was licensed in the state of Illinois. It was associated with a website, so I went online. They were telling me how they will help me to receive medical documentation. And not only that, they were also telling me how they’re trained to deal with difficult landlords.” 

Schreiber filled out a questionnaire, randomly checking about 20 boxes that might indicate a need for a comfort dog. “I submitted that, and then a message popped up where they said they would evaluate my request, which took all of about 15 seconds,” he says. “For $179 I had met the qualifications for a comfort dog. If I wanted to pay an additional $30, I would get also get a letter that would allow me to travel with my dog.” Schreiber says it took more time to fill out the credit card forms than it took to obtain the diagnosis of his need for a support animal.

The board president of another Queens co-op Mazel represents recently visited a pet store and told the clerk she lives in a no-pets building. “They said to her, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you a doctor’s note,’” Mazel says. “They assured her they would take care of everything. It’s really that easy.”

Schreiber, in his role on the Presidents’ Co-op  and Condo Council, started to contact politicians because he believes only strict legislative guidelines will solve the problem. “I contacted state Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, and I told her about it and sent her my [doctor’s] letter,” he says. “I just met with a representative from Governor Cuomo’s office. They couldn’t believe what I was telling them.”

Until legislation gets passed, boards are limited in ways they can deal with bogus requests for support animals. Boards can ask for additional information from a medical provider who is licensed in New York State. “But boards should be careful how they formulate the request,” Mazel advises. “The board can say, ‘This letter is insufficient evidence of your need for your request. We need further documentation, such as a report from your treating physician or your treating medical provider, not an internet medical provider.’”

Schreiber points out that this loophole also hurts people who have a legitimate need for a support animal. “Nobody ever saw me in person or evaluated me,” he says of his foray on the internet. “First of all, any kind of self-diagnosis has to be eliminated. I could’ve been a 15-year-old kid using my parents’ credit card.”

Paraphrasing a famous New Yorker cartoon, he adds, “On the internet, nobody knows if you really need a comfort dog.”

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