- Michael Shapot, Esq.
When is a Dog not a "Dog"?
This is not a trick question. A few weeks ago, I arrived early for an appointment to show an apartment in a "No Pet" building. To my surprise, two dogs pranced through the lobby on what appeared to be their routine afternoon walks. My curiosity got the best of me and I asked the walker whether she lived in the building. "No", she said, "I'm the afternoon dog walker." How could this be? There were dogs in a no pet building! Hmmmmm. I began noticing dogs in restaurants and hotels, dogs on planes, subways and buses, both on leashes and carried in designer over-the-shoulder bags. They were everywhere! I researched the issue and discovered that federal, state and city laws protect those who require service animals (seeing eye dogs, ie) or emotional-support pets. So, even if your building (or a restaurant, or an airline) has a strict no-pet policy, it must provide reasonable accommodations for those with a physical or mental disability who request a pet. This "reasonable accommodation" may translate into a pet fee that is waived in a building that permits pets, or that an exception be made to an otherwise strict "No Pet" policy. Service animals have special training and certifications. By contrast, there is much less clarity with respect to defining emotional support animals. A simple letter from a health care provider attesting to a resident's disability and explaining how the animal will alleviate the condition is all that is required. Easy peasy. And quite frankly, SPOILER ALERT, anyone can get a letter like this by making a simple call to his or her doctor or shrink; it is happening ever more frequently. Building managers and lawyers usually review requests for exceptions to No Pet rules, including the supporting materials, and rubber stamp approvals because denials pose serious risk. If a resident should file a complaint with the City’s Commission on Human Rights, and an investigation finds evidence of discrimination, the building could face huge fines (up to $250,000!) and the resident could be awarded significant money damages.
Years ago, a client purchased in a coop with a no pet policy that was enacted after contract signing and before the Board interview. The Board kindly requested to interview the enthusiastic pooch. We recommended that the purchaser either medicate the dog with doggie downers or run the dog in the Park for hours before the interview to tire her out. The exercise worked and the dog passed the interview. Today, there would have been a less stressful solution for the buyer, seller, brokers as well as the doggie: emotional support letter. Happens all the time.
You may ask, "What about those poor building residents who don't want to live alongside furry neighbors?" What if they're allergic, frightened, disturbed by barking, or if the animal sheds or otherwise makes a mess? Too bad. I'd recommend moving, but the same thing will eventually happen in the next "No Pet" building. So, when is a dog not a dog? Potentially -- always. When it's a service animal or an emotional support animal. Woof!