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REALTORS Offer 'Companion Animal' Bill

Written by Posted On Monday, 16 May 2016 13:44

This year the California Association of REALTORS® (CAR) is sponsoring Assembly Bill 2760, a bill "to statutorily distinguish between a medically necessary companion or support animal and other animals kept as pets."

By way of background, it is noted that service animals are clearly defined in the law, whereas companion animals, support animals, and therapy animals are not. Service animals are defined under federal law, as any dog (or housebroken miniature horse!) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Guide dogs and signal dogs are examples. Federal regulations also make clear that comfort, emotional support, and companionship animals are not service animals.

Unlike service animals, companion or support animals have no special training or skill set. Rather, it is by their simple presence that they are perceived as having a beneficial -- even therapeutic -- effect on a (particular) person who is beset by some mental or emotional condition whose effects are serious enough to rise to the level of a disability. In such cases, both state and federal fair housing laws require that landlords be willing to make reasonable accommodations for such animals, should they be needed by a tenant with a corresponding disability. This would be required even if the landlord has a general "no pets" policy. Service and support animals are not, under the law, considered to be pets.

In a landmark California fair housing case (Auburn Woods I Homeowners Association v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission) the Court recognized that it was not necessary for an animal to be specifically trained in order for it to have a beneficial effect on its owners who were, among other things, suffering from debilitating depression. Thus it wrote, "Pooky [the name of the dog] did not need special skills to help ameliorate the effects of the Elebiaris' disabilities. Rather, it was the innate qualities of a dog, in particular a dog's friendliness and ability to interact with humans, that made it therapeutic here."

Still, because there is no clear definition for support animals such as Pooky, CAR argues the need for legislation. "The vagueness in state law allows individuals without a legitimate need to ‘game the system' and claim a status for pets that is not deserved. Unfortunately, the backlash against fake service animals may prevent some individuals with legitimate support needs from being able to access housing. In other instances, it may expose property owners to unwarranted litigation when they try to enforce a ‘no pets' rule."

Thus, the CAR-sponsored bill proposes the following:

"Support animal" means a support dog, companion animal, emotional support animal, or assistive animal that is prescribed by a California licensed physician or licensed mental health professional in order to treat a mental or emotional illness or mental or emotional disability. [my emphasis]

This would provide a major change. As it is now, no such "prescription" is required. Moreover, there is actually no specific requirement that a person certifying the existence of a disability and the need for a particular support animal have any kind of licensing or a particular field of expertise. As one exasperated attorney suggested, perhaps it would be sufficient for your yoga instructor to cite the need for an emotional support animal.

One organization opposing the bill, The National Housing Law Project, has written that the proposed definition would be out of step with existing Federal rules and procedures:

"HUD provides that non-medical service providers, peer support group members, or other reliable third parties may verify the individual's disability."

Moreover, the Judiciary Committee's Legislative Analyst (whose ‘analysis' reads more like an attack) has commented that "...limiting verification to a licensed mental health care professional is unnecessarily restrictive, contrary to established federal law and HUD guidance, and may even have an adverse impact on low-income people with disabilities..."

AB 2760 faces an uphill battle in Sacramento. While almost everyone acknowledges that the current vagueness surrounding what counts as a companion, support, or therapy animal leads to disputes, inconvenience, and sometimes monetary losses, there's not much agreement on how to fix it.

Bob Hunt is a director of the California Association of Realtors®. He is the author of Real Estate the Ethical Way. His email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Bob Hunt

Bob Hunt is a former director of the National Association of Realtors and is author of Ethics at Work and Real Estate the Ethical Way. A graduate of Princeton with a master's degree from UCLA in philosophy, Hunt has served as a U.S. Marine, Realtor association president in South Orange County, and director of the California Association of Realtors, and is an award-winning Realtor. Contact Bob at scbhunt@aol.com.

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