In a recent case out of Pennsylvania, a condominium association was found to have violated Fair Housing laws for its delay in approving requests for reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal belonging to a resident and for imposing conditions on the animals’ use of the common area.
The Dorchester Owners’ Association in Philadelphia is a condominium with a rule against keeping pets. Two different owners requested an exemption from the rule based on their disabilities. One, Louise Hamburg, obtained a letter from a clinical psychotherapist that said she was treating Ms. Hamburg. It was later discovered that the statements in the letter and other related statements by Ms. Hamburg were false as that therapist had never actually met Ms. Hamburg. A second owner, Bernard Halpern also requested that he be granted a reasonable accommodation by allowing him to keep an assistance animal.
Although it had a policy for assistance animals, the condominium’s rules included things like height and weight restrictions, required that they be muzzled, that they use only the back elevators and entrances, and required their owners to carry a $1 million insurance policy.
In 2019, HUD issued a discrimination charge after its investigation of the condominium’s policies and practices. In March of 2020, the DOJ filed suit on behalf of Ms. Hamburg, Mr. Halpern, and others, alleging a pattern or practice of denying the rights granted by the Fair Housing Act.
At trial, Mr. Halpern testified about his depression and the Association’s delay in responding to his application for an emotional support animal as a reasonable accommodation. The evidence at trial also showed that Ms. Hamburg submitted a request for an emotional support animal in 2017 in which she falsely claimed that the letter prescribing her an emotional support animal was from her licensed mental health professional, Carla Black. In truth, Ms. Hamburg had never met or personally communicated with Black, but only received a letter from Ms. Black through a website.
The jury determined that the Association had not discriminated against Ms. Hamburg, but that its delay in approving applications submitted by Mr. Halpern and other treatment was discriminatory. The court also determined that a pattern or practice of discrimination was not established because, it said, two instances of delayed responses to applications for a reasonable accommodation was not enough to find a pattern or practice of discrimination. However, the Association was found liable to Mr. Halpern for delaying approval and other rules connected to his assistance animal to the tune of $37,431.
Although this case is not binding in North Carolina or South Carolina, it does highlight a couple of important takeaways.
First, all homeowners associations and condominiums should have a game plan when it comes to requests for reasonable accommodations. It is always better to be proactive by developing a procedure for how to handle requests, rather than reacting the first time a request shows up. Associations should work with an experienced community association attorney to develop a strong policy that will protect it from situations such as what happened in this case.
Second, it always pays to keep the lines of communication open when dealing with requests for reasonable accommodation. One of the problems in this case was that the condominium failed to act in a timely manner. If it better communicated with one of the homeowners, it is possible that things could have gone differently.
Third, while the Association here was able to avoid liability for its failure to approve an emotional support animal for Ms. Hamburg, it was fortunate to have done so. As was shown at trial, Ms. Hamburg met the legal definition of disability and later even obtained a real letter from a physician who had actually seen her. Many boards of directors lose sight of the fact that even disliked individuals may have a legitimate need for an assistance animal. The evidence from the trial showed that Ms. Hamburg was not anyone’s favorite resident. Likely, the board here had difficulty in getting past the initial letter she submitted and allowed that interaction to color all its future dealings with her.
If your association needs help with a request for an assistance animal, or would like to develop a policy for handling requests for reasonable accommodations, reach out to one of our experienced community association attorneys in any of our offices.