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How Emotional Support Animals are Upending No-Pet Rules in NYC Buildings

By Amy Zimmer | June 14, 2016 5:53pm
 More of the city's tenants are certifying their pets as emotional support animals. Doing so allows the the animals to live in no-pet buildings.
More of the city's tenants are certifying their pets as emotional support animals. Doing so allows the the animals to live in no-pet buildings.
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BROOKLYN — After a Prospect-Lefferts Gardens co-op refused to waive its no-dog policy for a Shih Tzu named Swag — whose owners contended he provided them with "mental therapy" — the board upped the ante by trying to evict Swag's family. But the moves by the building's management may come back to bite it.

When Prestige Management tried to oust the family from the Mitchell-Lama development at 636 Brooklyn Ave., Carol T. and her daughter Cinnamon filed a complaint, which stated that they were discriminated against on the basis of disability.

Failing to properly assess Carol and Cinnamon's needs or provide them “reasonable accommodation” of a companion animal or emotional support animal, “constituted illegal discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law," wrote administrative judge Faye Lewis last year. 

She issued a recommendation that the city’s Human Rights Commission fine the building’s management a whopping $95,000. The award is expected to soon come before the Human Rights Commissioner for a final decision — and the city’s real estate community is watching closely.

The number of requests for emotional support animals — or ESAs — in pet-free buildings has ballooned over the past few years, lawyers and brokers said. Landlords are fearful of potentially hefty fines if they contest a pet’s presence while residents are now feeling more emboldened.

It’s become a bigger issue as websites now make it as easy to become licensed for an emotional support animal as it is to become a minister to officiate your friends’ wedding, many say.

A few sites, for instance, promise an ESA letter from a registered therapist within 72 hours of completing a phone interview. They only require you to pay $125 if you meet the diagnosis of such emotional disabilities as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, personality disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another — which costs $140 for a letter with an additional $49.50 for overnight shipping — states that if you qualify, “you will then be given your prescription letter which allows you to fly with your ESA, and live in housing where pets are typically not permitted.”

Real estate attorney Sherwin Belkin, of Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, said he gets multiple calls every week from landlords across the city asking how to field requests for emotional support animals.

"What was a drip, drip, drip is now a flood,” he said.

A tenant at a Midtown East building, for instance, recently got the go-ahead for an emotional support animal — after a lot of “back-and-forth” with the landlord — and within two weeks, two more tenants from the building submitted requests for such animals, Belkin said.

“If a tenant comes forward with what seems like a legitimate reason, the owner has to consent. You’re not allowed to make deep inquiries because it’s considered a violation of privacy,” Belkin said, also noting that under the city’s pet laws, a landlord can’t do anything about a pet if the landlord knew or should have known about the animal living in the building but failed to take action for 90 days.

Belkin — himself a dog owner — said he was unaware of the ESA evaluation letter websites until a few weeks ago when he started poking around.

He was surprised by the ease with which one could possibly be obtained.

“It struck me that these questions are intended to be as coverall as going to the daily newspaper and reading your horoscope. They’ll apply to everybody,” he said. “This has now created a significant problem in buildings, which is far beyond what anyone intended in creating the category of ESA.”

Naomi Eisenberg, a broker with Mdrn. believes that landlords have been catching onto the online ESA letters.

“People are getting those letters from the Internet, and it’s not working. Landlords will really go to town searching the document and making sure it’s coming from a reputable place,” she said. “But once you obtain all the paperwork, and it’s legitimate, they must accept you.”

Eisenberg should know.

She was able to get a French bulldog into her Upper East Side rental after her son’s doctor wrote a letter that the only child of a divorced couple would benefit from the pet.

“He loves it,” Eisenberg said of her son’s dog, who has proven to be a good companion for the 13-year-old boy. “It reduces anxiety and calms you down. There are studies about the benefits of having a pet, especially for children who are going through something.”

When it comes to animals that provide comfort or emotional support — dogs or otherwise — even if they don't qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they may qualify under the Fair Housing Act, according to New York’s Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau.

“The animal need not be specifically trained as a service animal if it provides physical or emotional support, lessens the effects of the person’s disability and is necessary for the person to be able to fully enjoy the housing,” the AG’s office states.

Fights over such animals fall under the jurisdiction of the city’s Commission on Human Rights.

“The New York City Human Rights Law protects people with disabilities from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation, including their right to bring a service animal or emotional support animal into a housing unit,” said Seth Hoy, spokesman for commission.

In the case currently pending before the Human Rights Commission, Carol and Cinnamon had letters from local doctors and therapists who had been treating them for anxiety and depression.

Carol’s husband  — who lives apart from the family — brought Swag into the building, stowing it in a bag in a baby carriage, as a gift for Cinnamon because of her depression.

Prestige — which denied that the mom and daughter suffered from a disability — seemed to assert it didn't have consider the request to keep the dog since the family didn't ask in advance, judge Lewis wrote in her decision.

But Lewis noted that housing providers are “required to give good faith consideration to a tenant’s request to keep a pet as a companion or emotional support animal, even if the tenant gets the pet first and asks permission later.”

She cited support from medical professionals, including a letter from Cinammon’s therapist, who said the dog would help her “maintain a sense of responsibility to the animal, adhere structure, maintain discipline and improve her sense of empathy, as well as her coping skills in general."

Lewis suggested Carol be awarded $40,000 for “mental anguish” and Cinnamon be awarded $25,000 for the same.

The judge also called for a civil penalty of $30,000 and for the co-op's management to undergo anti-discrimination training.