Increasingly, those who manage residential rental, cooperative, or condominium apartment dwellings in New York are learning they must walk a fine line in setting house rules that govern the ownership and acceptance of animals in their buildings. Landlords, volunteer board members of cooperatives and condominiums, and the managing agents of buildings can no longer maintain or implement house rules that unqualifiedly ban all animals from the premises. Persons with disabilities who require a service, therapy, or emotional support assistance animal to support or assist their physical and/or emotional needs are protected by federal, state, and local antidiscrimination laws, and, to ensure compliance and avoid liability, buildings with a “no pet” policy must adapt their rules to the laws’ requirements.
Defining a Disability
Each of the applicable laws defines “disability” or “handicap” in slightly different ways, but all of the laws essentially agree on the circumstances under which a person is deemed to be disabled. Under federal law, a person is deemed disabled if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and there is a record of such impairment or the person is regarded as having the impairment. New York State and New York City antidiscrimination statutes cover the same general areas but, in addition, reference particular physical and mental impairments deemed to be disabilities within the broader categories.
It is becoming apparent that the managers of residential buildings—whether landlords, boards, and/or their managing agents—are being called upon with some frequency to issue waivers from existing “no pet” policies, and waiver requests from disabled residents or applicants for residency are growing at a rapid pace.
In addressing waiver requests, landlords, boards, and managing agents must be sensitive to the fact that there are multiple categories of disabilities for which animal support or assistance may be appropriate and medically required. It is important too that they understand that many disabilities of a physical nature (such as blindness or lameness) are readily apparent, but other physical disabilities (such as deafness), and those of an emotional or psychological nature, are not readily apparent or easily recognized. They need to appreciate also that there are multiple categories of assistance animals, and, similarly, that there are both assistance animals whose support to the disabled person is immediately apparent and assistance animals whose assistance and support is not immediately apparent, but whose presence may be essential to the well-being of the disabled person.