While there is already substantial federal and state legal protection for individuals with disabilities that use service animals, there has been a recent movement to create similar protections for those with emotional support animals as well. These regulations are newer, more limited, and sometimes introduce complexities in particular circumstances, but owners of emotional support animals in California certainly have greater rights than those of companion animals (pets).
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Part of the legal complexity arises from the nuanced difference between support animals and service animals. Emotional support animals are different from service animals in a number of ways. First, the purpose of a service animal is to provide the owner with a particular, trained skill, such as guiding the visually impaired, detecting imminent seizures, pulling wheelchairs, and so on. Traditionally, these animals are dogs or horses that are highly trained. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, provide a therapeutic response to those suffering from anxiety, depression, and the like. Rats, cats, birds, and other animals can satisfy these needs. Emotional support animals, while effective, do not require specialized training in the way that a service dog might. (See FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). However, documentation proving the disability and the need for the support animal may be required in some instances.
Emotional Support Animal Laws In California: Specific Protections
Like service animals, emotional support animals are protected by California law and federal law in housing, employment, and travel. However, support animals do not receive the same protections in public places as service animals do.
Landlords are required to allow renters to live with their emotional support animals or a psychiatric service dog in California. This means that a landlord may not evict a renter or even charge a pet deposit for emotional support animals, excluding certain rare exceptions (see below). A landlord may require a renter with an emotional support animal to show documentation supporting the fact that the renter has a disability and that reasonable accommodation for the support animal is necessary. However, since no training is required for emotional support animals, there is no need to show the landlord that the animal itself is certified.
Emotional Support Animal Employment Laws
California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act apply to employees and job applicants with emotional support animals. Employers may not discriminate on the basis of an employee’s disability and must make reasonable accommodations for the disability. In the context of emotional support animals, employers with five or more employees must make accommodations for employees with those animals. Thus, even if an employer has a policy to disallow animals in the office, they must make an exception for support animals. Like landlords, employers may also require documentation for the need of an emotional support animal.
When traveling, the Air Carrier Access Act applies to individuals with disabilities and emotional support animals on airplanes. However, the rules are stricter and required documentation is more burdensome. To fly with an emotional support animal, you may need a letter from a licensed health care professional declaring the mental health disability and the need for the animal. The letter must contain the health care professional’s letterhead and must be less than one year old. The letter must also clearly indicate the type of health care in which the professional practices. In addition, you may be required to give 48 hours advanced notices to the carrier.
Exceptions to the Rules
Legal protection afforded to emotional support animals is not unlimited. For example, in California and under federal guidelines, public places are not required to admit emotional support animals even when they are required to do so for service animals.
Even landlords may deny renters to live with emotional support animals if, even with reasonable accommodation, the animal poses a threat to the health and safety of others or would cause substantial property damage. This exception is very limited; the mere fact that an emotional support animal is large or of a particular breed does not allow the landlord to raise this exception. The threat to safety or property must be particularized to the animal in question. On the other hand, the amount of damage done by an animal need not be great if it is unreasonable. (See, e.g., Woodside Village v. Hertzmark, FH-FL Rptr. ¶ 18,129 (Conn. Sup. Ct. 1993), where failing to walk the dog in designated areas or clean up after the dog resulted in a proper eviction).
Employers also may require that support animals do not pose a threat to others in the workplace or create an inappropriate work environment due to lack of house training.
If you have a disability that requires the presence of an emotional support animal, you may have access to legal protection. You need to first ensure that your emotional support animal letter is written by a Licensed Mental Health Provider. Because regulations and laws involving emotional support animals in California are so new, and because many employers and landlords may not be aware of the protections, it may be beneficial to consult local and federal laws on the matter: The Fair Housing Act, the Air Carriers Access Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. California offers its own protections as well under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act for emotional support animals.
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