Some emotionally sensitive people with psychiatric ailments rely on emotional support animals (ESA) to help them cope. For example, an ESA aids people with disabilities or mental health issues and is part of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA). Despite their existing pet restrictions, the law requires landlords of apartment and housing communities to make “reasonable accommodation” for ESAs.

Besides dogs, other animals, including cats, birds, dogs, rabbits, and other animals, can be an ESA. While service animals perform specific tasks like helping a blind person navigate, an emotional support animal doesn’t require formal training to ease mental health symptoms.

The Claim

A real estate agent faces a lawsuit from a prospective tenant seeking to lease a rental unit. The renter informed the agent her dogs were for emotional support as she has other disabilities. The plaintiff claims the landlord denied allowing her two large breed ESA dogs into the rental agreement.

The dogs were to undergo and pass a behavior evaluation before issuing the lease as part of the rental agreement. However, the dogs failed the assessment, and the rental agreement was denied. But the plaintiff did not receive the results of the test.


What Went Wrong

The real estate agent made the error of omitting the evaluation results when informing the prospective tenant of the declined application. In this situation, failing to communicate the evaluation results to the client exposed the agent to a potentially costly discrimination lawsuit. The dogs are valuable and serve a purpose more than just as pets for the plaintiff. In such cases, agents must articulate why an ESA was denied and not gloss over it. The fact the agent did not provide essential information and feedback created grounds for the denied renter to bring a lawsuit.

Realtors must realize ESA’s can cause a wrinkle in the apartment or condo hunting process. Apartments should have concise language in renter requirements and bylaws to protect ESAs in these circumstances. Additionally, it is advisable for leasing agents to inquire if rental prospects have an ESA as part of their application and interview process.
People, in general, have strong feelings regarding their pets. The intensity ramps up when adding ESAs to the mix. Landlords should include concise language in their renter requirements to reflect laws that protect ESAs. Unfortunately, misunderstandings and lack of clear communication can cause costly legal actions. This scenario is an excellent reminder of why a strong Errors and Omissions (E&O) policy is the first line of defense in protecting real estate agents from disastrous legal fees and settlement charges in liability lawsuits.

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