Guest view: New law targets fraudulent service-animal requests

Your community has a no-pet policy. When John was moving in, he asked about the pet policy and was told no pets are allowed.

Several weeks after John moved in, your community manager saw John walking a dog in the community. When confronted about the no-pet policy, John said the dog was his girlfriend’s, and he was simply watching it for the weekend. After your manager told John pets are not allowed to visit, he then claimed the dog was an emotional support animal, or ESA, needed to accommodate his disability. To prove his case, John showed your manager a certificate, which he obtained from an internet website, stating that John’s dog is a certified ESA.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

(Getty Images)

Is John really disabled, and is his dog really an emotional support animal that he needs to accommodate his disability? If yes, then you must allow John’s dog to live in the community with him. But could it be that John is just trying to get around your no-pet policy?

Last fall Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law the Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act, also known as Act 118, which took effect Dec. 23. The act is designed to assist communities (condominiums, planned developments, and rental communities) with no-pet policies, or policies that limit pets, in evaluating a resident’s claim that he or she requires an assistance or service animal (which by law are not “pets”) as an accommodation to a disability.

The act recognizes the struggles that communities have faced recently in dealing with fraudulent requests by residents who are not disabled but simply want to avoid having to comply with pet rules.

And it accomplishes four things:

• It confirms that communities are entitled to ask for, and receive, written verification of a resident’s disability and disability-related need for an assistance or ser-vice animal (unless the disability or need is obvious).

• It requires that the person verifying the disability or disability-related need for the animal must have “direct knowledge of the person’s disability and disabil-ity-related need for the assistance animal or service animal.” This requirement should reduce the number of fraudulent internet verification forms that are currently presented to landlords and associations.

• It creates criminal penalties for violations of the act by residents and their verifiers. First, the act provides that a person who misrepresents a disability or need for an assistance or service animal commits a misdemeanor of the third degree, which is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Sec-ond, a person who misrepresents an animal as being a service or assistance animal commits a summary offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. Finally, a person who outfits an animal that is not an assistance animal or service animal with a harness, collar, vest or sign indicating that the animal is an assistance animal or service animal commits a summary offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

• It provides associations and landlords immunity from liability for injuries caused by a person’s assistance animal or service animal that is permitted on the property as a reasonable accommodation for a disabled person.

When residents who do not have a legitimate need for an assistance or service animal fraudulently state that they do, it creates burdens for associations, land-lords and disabled residents who do need assistance or service animals. It is hoped that the enactment of Act 118 will limit the number of false requests, allowing associations to focus on legitimate requests by disabled residents.

To prepare for the implementation of Act 118, associations and landlords may want to consider revising their current disability accommodation request forms to include information regarding the act.

Steven M. Williams

Steven M. Williams is the managing partner of law firm Cohen Seglias’ Harrisburg office. He concentrates his practice in the areas of real estate law, landlord and tenant law, condominium and homeowner law, commercial litigation, employment law, construction, and business and corporate law.

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