Do Municipal Ordinances Override Federal Laws Concerning Emotional Support Animals?

Service animals, including guide dogs for the blind, are obvious examples of assistance animals. Other service animals are trained to alert people with diabetes about low blood sugar, signal certain sounds for deaf individuals, and retrieve items for people with mobility issues. Service animals are afforded access to a place of public accommodation and are protected by state and federal laws.

Emotional support animals provide assistance for individuals with mental or emotional disabilities. Because emotional support animals are not pets or service animals, confusion exists regarding protections for such animals under the law, leaving some to wonder if city ordinances trump federal laws concerning emotional support animals.

Federal laws regarding emotional support animals

Owners of emotional support animals are protected by the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), which prohibits discrimination against protected classes in housing, including individuals with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities. The Act applies to apartments, condominiums, cooperatives, single-family homes, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, group homes, domestic violence shelters, emergency shelters, homeless shelters, and dormitories.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires accommodations for emotional support animals to be both reasonable and necessary. A “reasonable” accommodation does not impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider or constitute a fundamental alteration of the housing program. An accommodation is considered “necessary” when there is an identifiable relationship between the requested accommodation and the individual’s disability.

What are some examples of emotional support animals?

Examples of emotional support animals include dogs, cats, rabbits, and typical domestic animals. In some instances, exotic and barnyard animals such as pigs, chickens, horses, hedgehogs, and others have been used as emotional support animals.

Obtaining proof

A healthcare provider or mental health professional may prescribe an emotional support animal for an individual with a disability to help the person cope with the condition. The healthcare provider will supply a letter that documents his or her need for an emotional support animal, which the individual would then give to the housing provider.

Municipal ordinances

In addition, city, township, or village ordinances may take precedence over federal law regarding ESAs in residential neighborhoods.

City officials have an interest in the health, safety, aesthetics, and property values of residential neighborhoods. Because the presence of exotic and barnyard animals may alter the neighborhood, accommodations may be deemed unreasonable and could be denied.

HUD Guidance

For example, an exotic or farm animal may be considered an ESA protected under the FHA. However, HUD’s guidance states that when there is an animal that is not commonly kept in households, the individual seeking accommodation has “the substantial burden of demonstrating a disability-related therapeutic need for the specific animal or specific type of animal.”

This is a tough standard for some individuals to meet. Not only is the person required to produce the proper documentation to prove there is a therapeutic need for the ESA, he or she may also have to provide documentation that states why the particular ESA is the only animal that can meet the individual’s therapeutic needs and the factual basis for that conclusion.

Help is available

The attorneys at O’Reilly Rancilio are available to assist municipalities, landlords, and others regarding the laws surrounding emotional support animals. For more information, please call 586-726-1000 or visit our website.

Categories: Municipal