Pet, or Service Animal? (Again…)

A new Florida Federal District Court case has some good reasoning and guidance dealing with the pet vs. service animal distinction, and how an association should respond to requests for a service animal accommodation.

The case, Hawn v. Shoreline Towers Phase 1 Condominium Association, involved the Davis C. Hawn’s assertion that his Labrador retriever, Booster, was a service animal who was “dually trained to help [Mr. Hawn] both physically and psychologically.

Booster was originally introduced to the association’s board as a “pet”, and Mr. Hawn sought a six month trial period “to give folks a chance to prove that they love their pets as onel would love any other family member.” There’s no evidence that the association did anything in response to this letter, but about a year later, Mr. Hawn sought permission to keep Booster as his “service animal”. His letter asserted physical and psychological disabilities, supported by a letter from a psychologist and a chiropractor.

The association thereafter attempted on two different occasions to get more information regarding Mr. Hawn’s alleged handicap; no further information was provided. As a result, the association sent a letter stating “at this time, we must deny your request…”; Mr. Hawn responded by filing a complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR). The FHCR ultimately found in favor of Mr. Hawn; following that, he filed his claim in the Florida Federal District Court, alleging violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act and the intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, contending that Haws had failed to meet his burdens. The court, while assuming that Hawns was handicapped, found for the association based upon the fact that the association had no knowledge or reason to know that he was, in fact handicapped. The court noted that the association had never denied the accommodation, but rather had twice requested — unsuccessfully — to obtain additional evidence of the handicap and/or the need for the accommodation.

The court, in its opinion, reviewed and relied extensively upon a Hawaii case of several years ago, Prindable v. Association of Apartment Owners of 2987 Kalakaua, 304 F.Supp.2d 1245 (D. Hawaii 2003), affirmed, Dubois v. Association of Apartment Owners of 2987 Kalakaua, 453 F.3d 1175 (9th Cir. 2006). The Prindable/Dubois case, like this case, involved a patient association which sought, unsuccessfully, to receive medical evidence to support the need for an alleged service animal.

Haws provides strong support for associations’ rights to request competent evidence for the need for a requested service animal. In those instances where the need for a service animal is not obvious, associations can and should insist upon adequate and appropriate medical evidence, so that legitimate requests for accommodation are granted, and unwarranted requests are denied.