Accommodating the Mentally Disabled Who Have Service Animals How Can a Building Avoid Potential Discrimination?

For some people, the companionship and assistance dogs provide are critical to a person being able to function on their own (iStock).

This is the second part in a series on housing discrimination and multifamily buildings. Click here to read part one.

The legal definition of 'physical disability' has changed and expanded over the years. While it might be clear that someone using a wheelchair can’t climb the stairs, and a person who is sight-impaired might be easily identified by their service animal, other legally recognized disabilities are less apparent to a casual observer. In light of that, the Legal Information Institute defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.”  

According to Deborah B. Koplovitz, a shareholder with the Anderson Kill law firm in New York City this definition impacts the boards and management of condos, co-ops, and HOAs in that “A board is required to make (or permit) ‘reasonable accommodations’ to the rules and regulations and to the structure of the building, in order to make the housing handicapped accessible. A board is also required to refrain from retaliating against a cooperator or condo owner who has made a request or a complaint about certain treatment.  However, a board is not required to consent to unreasonable accommodations; to accommodations which cause an undue burden, or which are structurally infeasible; or under federal law, which would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing.”  

What constitutes 'reasonable accommodation' is fairly straightforward when it comes to physical disabilities; installing a ramp, for example, or widening doorways to make space for a wheelchair to pass through. But what about people with mental health challenges, especially those who need a service animal? What is the building’s obligation in this case, and what board/management actions could lead to potential claims of discrimination?

The No-Pet Rule and Service Animals

A common prohibition in many co-op buildings is the ban on some pets -- usually dogs. There are lots of reasons why individual buildings choose to prohibit dog ownership.  Unlike cats, dogs need to be walked frequently; this alone inevitably means a certain number of ‘accidents’ in the lobby and other common areas through which dogs may pass on their way outside. Dogs also make substantially more noise, and can get rambunctious in the elevator or hallways, which may lead to damage to carpet, wall coverings or other common elements.  

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