Century Village recently tried to eradicate service dogs for the disabled by suing elderly and disabled individuals and hoping they could not afford to retain counsel to defend themselves. One in particular has major depressive disorder, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, and is hard of hearing. He owns a small Shih Tzu named Yummy, who has been properly trained and certified and is a working service dog. Florida statute §413.08(1)(b) defines a disability with respect to an individual as a person who is deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired, or has any type of impairment that substantially limits his ability to enjoy one or more major life activities. Federal Law defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” 42 U.S.C.S. § 12102. This lawsuit violated both state and federal law and was a complete abuse of the judicial system.
Private clubs, providing they meet certain criteria, are exempt from the ADA and do not have to provide ADA accommodations, such as allowing a service dog, but a condo is not a private club. Each unit is privately owned, but the roadways and parking lot are shared by all unit owners. An individual unit owner has the right to say “I don’t want a service dog inside of my condo because I am allergic to dogs,” but the common grounds are for everybody who lives in the condo to use. Common grounds often include the pool area, laundry facilities, business offices, and outdoor restrooms.
While the ADA governs the use of emotional support animals in public places, the Fair Housing Act governs the use of emotional service animals in housing. Under the Fair Housing Act, an individual with a disability is entitled to keep an emotional support dog in housing facilities that otherwise do not allow pets. An emotional support animal must be permitted as a reasonable accommodation when an individual requires the animal in order to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the housing. The assistance the animal provides must relate to the individual’s disability. An individual with a disability must acquire a special letter from a licensed mental health professional documenting the individual’s need for an emotional support animal. Our client had the appropriate letter from his psychiatrist.
A condo is free to enact a no pet or no animal policy or have pet restrictions, such as size limits. However, a service dog is not considered a pet under the law and has status just as his owner would. Therefore, it is legal for a service dog to go anywhere his owner can go. A condo cannot discriminate from allowing a disabled person from purchasing or leasing a condo unit. A service dog is permitted without regard to any local animal or pet policies. Century Village knew that this is the law and filed the lawsuit anyway.
There are many psychological benefits to being partnered with a service dog for people with major depressive disorder. A dog depending on him for care will likely encourage his owner to get out of bed to take the dog for a walk and to give the dog food, water, treats, and toys. The simple act of getting up and moving around, especially getting fresh air, can help relieve some of the symptoms of depression. The routine of caring for the dog can help the person get on a routine for feeding and caring for himself at the same time, i.e. when the dog eats dinner, the disabled person also eats dinner. Some people with suicidal ideation have reported they would not be able to act on their thoughts of suicide for fear of leaving a beloved companion without care. Many studies have shown that interactions with dogs and other animals cause biochemical changes in both the person and the animal, resulting in feelings of calmness and lowered blood pressure. When trained therapy dogs visit hospitals, the patients feel calmer and their physical health improves as a result.
Unless a dog is trained to independently recognize and respond to its owner’s psychiatric disability, the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog and does not receive the protections of the ADA. In this case, the judge found that our client was a qualified member of the class protected by the ADA, that his dog was a compliant service dog under the ADA and that Century Village is subject to the ADA. They are not a private club because there is a real estate office open to the public within Century Village, which makes their roadways public accommodations.