Emotional Support Animals: Update for Iowa Landlords and Rental Property Owners and Managers

03.28.2016

People with disabilities do not deserve to be mistreated on the basis of their disability.  No one should have to endure maltreatment because of something outside their scope of control.  At the same time, some people claim to be deserving of special treatment without legitimate need.  The law is not intended to be applied without earnest review, and other tenants, residents or unit owners are entitled to fair application of the law by board members and managers.  So how should a property manager, landlord or board member react when presented with a “doctor’s note” and claim of disability? 

Anyone that searches the internet can find information saying that protections exist under federal and state laws for people with disabilities that require emotional support animals1 , however the advice given varies widely, and is different between states.  If you are a part of a homeowner’s association, apartment management, or other person who needs to make decisions about emotional support animals, you need to understand that having a written policy and sticking to it is not enough to be compliant.  Decision makers should have a professional familiar with your decision making process who can advise you not only on what the law says, but on the costs involved, the insurance aspects, and the attitude and positions of the government employees involved with investigations and negotiations throughout the claims process.

Like all business-minded people, the positions you take have risks and rewards and the lawyer that advises you needs to understand the culture of your association, and help advise not only on the law, but on decisions and their impact.  

•    What should you do if you have one person on the board that may well have a prejudice against animals and animal owners, when the board is presented with an accommodation request for an emotional support animal?

•    Is the law the same whether the unit to be purchased or rented is a single family dwelling, is in a planned community, or involves communal living?    

•    What should you do if a complaint is made to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, or one is threatened?

•    What should you do if other unit owners/tenants have allergies, phobias, or other adverse reactions to an emotional support animal?

•    What should you do if the emotional support animal requested is unusual (like a snake, a pig, or an animal with high energy or a poor disposition)?

Most lawyers can read the rules and tell you what they say, but this is an area focused on “reasonableness”.  A Board or management company would do well to make sure its lawyer is able to understand  the problem, current on applicable city and state service dog and emotional support animal laws, and able to provide solutions.  Organizations with boards that do not regularly meet or use electronic means of communication on a daily basis should be especially proactive to seek advice and establish policies prior to any problem arising.  

For more information on this topic of emotional support animals and landlord/tenant and property owner and/or manager issues, please contact Des Moines attorney Jonathan Kramer at 515-288-6041.

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1 The focus of this editorial comment is on emotional support animals, rather than trained assistance animals, because, in practice, boards and management tend to understand and apply the law with substantially less difficulty when the animal involved is trained and when the disability is obvious. What makes emotional support animals difficult, as a concept, is that people with disabilities may not present as having any obvious impairment, let alone an impairment that is substantially limiting of major life activities. In that case, the existence of the disability may not be accepted by all people in the decision making process.

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