A Manhattan condominium, like so many in the city, has a no-pet policy. When a unit-owner requested an exception to the rule because she claims she needs a dog as an emotional-support animal, the condo board rejected the request, claiming there is no definitive proof that dogs cannot spread coronavirus to humans – and therefore, permitting one in the building could endanger the health of residents and the staff. Can a board reject such a request on these grounds?
This condo board’s decision is rooted in neither the current science about COVID-19 nor in disability law, replies the Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times. The Mayo Clinic notes that “experts don’t consider animals to be a significant way that coronavirus spreads.” There is no evidence that viruses can spread to people from a pet’s skin, fur or hair, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
But this condo board’s error goes beyond bad science. Federal, state and city laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and require buildings to provide them with reasonable accommodations. So even in a pet-free building, when a resident with a disability is able to prove that he or she needs an emotional-support animal, the board must accommodate the request. Boards that fail to do so are opening themselves to the possibility of crippling damage awards.
“The condo’s claim that dogs might spread COVID-19 seems absurd on its face,” says Darryl M. Vernon, a real estate lawyer who represents owners of companion animals, noting that the science overwhelmingly points to people as the vectors of COVID-19 transmission. “That we know for sure,” Vernon adds. “So by the condo’s inane reasoning, they should not allow people in the building anymore, either.”
Even if a dog did pose an outside risk, pandemic protocols would likely protect this condo’s residents and staff anyway, as they should be wearing masks in common areas and keeping a six-foot distance. If everyone follows the rules, there would be few opportunities for people to have a close encounter with this emotional-support dog – or its owner.
Management is entitled to request proof of disability when someone requests a reasonable accommodation, which usually produces a letter from a health care provider explaining how an emotional-support animal would alleviate a specific condition. If the board refuses such request, the rebuffed unit-owner or shareholder could file a complaint with the city’s Commission on Human Rights, exposing the building to the risk of substantial fines for discriminating against a member of a protected class.
But this dispute doesn’t need to come to such a confrontation. A letter from an attorney spelling out the law and the board’s responsibilities should put the building on notice and make it clear that its reasoning for denying this request is unacceptable.
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