Thursday, July 19, 2012

Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals Are Not the Same

Recently, the Fourth District Court of Appeal of Florida issued opinion No. 4D10-3038, SUN HARBOR HOMEOWNERS' ASSOCIATION, appellant, v. BONURA, appellee, wherein the Court made a statement that muddies the water with regard to service animals and emotional support animals.
"[t]he testimony indicated Ms. Vidoni was able to travel and work without the dog." (emphasis added).
This blog posting is not a full review or critique of the factual or legal substance of this case. My focus here is merely to address the above statement and respectfully inform others about the dilemma presented by the Court's language, because service animals and emotional support animals are not the same.

Vincent Bonura owns a Sun Harbor townhouse where he resides with his fiancée, Natalie Vidoni, and her dog. To help her cope with depression and anxiety following an automobile accident which also left her with a physical impairment, Vidoni has an emotional support animal. Sun Harbor has a "no pets" policy. Both the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Florida Fair Housing Act provide, inter alia,  reasonable accommodation for disabled persons, including the waiver of "no pet" restrictions. 

In the simplest of terms, the purpose of emotional support animals is to provide comfort and companionship and thereby relieve stress, anxiety and other barriers to permit a disabled person to better cope and handle life's major activities, including caring for oneself. On the other hand, the purpose of service animals is to provide assistance to disabled persons, such as retrieving objects, providing alerts, opening doors, guiding blind persons, and otherwise helping the disabled person by actually doing some task. 

Service animals are trained to provide a particular service or do a particular task. Although state law varies, federal law does not demand that service animals receive certified training. The service animal may receive such certified training or can be trained at home. As long as the animal is trained to provide a service to a person with a disability and provides such service, the animal is a service animal. Service animals are not considered pets and they are generally permitted to go everywhere the disabled person goes.

Emotional support animals, as stated above, do not provide a particular service or perform a particular task, nor do they generally receive any training. Their basic purpose is to help a disabled person cope. As such, they are not considered service animals and are not permitted to go everywhere the disabled person goes like service animals are. Disabled persons routinely travel, go to work, and do other things without the emotional support animal accompanying them. It is precisely because the emotional support animal is at home that some disabled persons can cope well enough to travel and go to work. 

The Court's assertion that Vidoni could travel without her [emotional support] dog indicates the difficulty in presenting cases involving such animals. Part of the lawyer's role in such cases is to educate the court in the difference, and to present the facts appropriately with proper legal support and documentation. Part of the client's role in such circumstances is to be sure to follow the rules and regulations of the housing community, as well as the proper procedures for requesting a reasonable accommodation with supporting documentation from the client's doctor. The subsequent failure, or inordinate delay, of a housing complex to grant a reasonable accommodation is very likely to constitute a violation of both the Federal and Florida fair housing laws and both laws should be referenced in any action on behalf of a client.

Timothy C. Martin, Esq. is a solo practitioner in Tampa, Florida. His practice areas include animal law, administrative law, environmental law and land use, real estate/real propery, business organizations and transactions, LGBT issues, employment law, and mediation.

Martin Law Office, P.A.
Tel: (813) 260-1413
Fax: (888) 250-6501

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