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My co-op isn’t pet friendly. I recently got a support animal for anxiety. How do I handle this with the board?

When we moved into our co-op five years ago, my husband signed a document stating he would not get a pet. Many residents do have pets and this weekend we got a puppy. The dog is a registered support animal. What’s the best way to handle this with the board?

“Most co-ops have rules about pet ownership and it is within a board’s authority to restrict ownership of pets,” says Niki Khindri, an associate attorney at the Manhattan law firm Wagner, Berkow & Brandt, which represents co-op and condo boards as well as owners.

However, boards are bound by federal, state, and city discrimination laws that say service and assistance animals for disabled residents must be reasonably accommodated. “This means a co-op must make an exception to any no-pet policy for emotional support animals and service animals,” Khindri says.

Treating all shareholders equally

The pandemic pushed many boards to relax their rules around dog ownership as more residents began working from home and had the flexibility to bring pets into their lives. Some co-ops have weight or breed restrictions for dogs but generally, if other shareholders have pets—unless they are all emotional support or service animals—the board cannot arbitrarily say some shareholders are allowed pets while others are not.

Khindri says a caveat to this is New York City’s pet law, which applies to co-ops.

“In its simplest terms, it permits a tenant to keep a dog in their apartment if they have done so openly for 90 days and the co-op has failed to act or enforce its no-pet policy during that time,” she says.

A co-op’s pet policy will be outlined in the building’s governing documents such as the proprietary lease or house rules.

“Even if you originally signed a document saying you would not get a pet, the proprietary lease may permit ownership or ownership with the consent of the board, in which case you could seek permission for the dog,” Khindri says.

If your dog is truly a service animal or an emotional support animal, this adds another dimension to your situation. “Boards can face steep civil penalties and discrimination lawsuits if they improperly deny an animal that is a service or emotional support animal,” Khindri says.

Pets versus service and support animals

Under relevant discrimination laws, assistance and service animals are not considered pets and are not subject to a co-op’s pet policy. A service animal is trained for a particular task directly related to a disability; for example the detection of seizures, or as a guide to the visually impaired. Emotional assistance or support animals do not have to be trained specifically but provide support to those with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

If you want a service animal in a co-op with a no-pet policy, you will need to show the board you have a disability and the animal is trained to directly assist with that disability. If you want an emotional support animal you also need to show you have a recognized disability and that you need the animal to fully use and enjoy your apartment.

The documentation you need to give the board typically consists of a letter from a medical professional or treatment provider, such as a primary care doctor, psychologist, or social worker who has knowledge of your condition and who is currently treating you.

Generally, a board may not ask for access to detailed medical records, as this could run afoul of discrimination and privacy laws.  If they pursue this information when your disability and need for the animal are easily observable—for example blindness—the board may end up having to defend a complaint to the NYC Commission on Human Rights.

However, it is within a board’s right to request further information if you do not submit what they need.

Misconceptions about certification

Service animals typically have certification from the facility where they were trained and providing this to your board is useful but not essential. One common misconception, Khindri says, is that online certification of a support animal will persuade a board to allow you to have the animal.

“Online Emotional Support Animal certification on its own, without other documentation verifying the disability and the disability-related need for the animal, is insufficient to entitle shareholders to be exempt from a board’s no-pet policy,” Khindri says. In her experience boards are often wary of “online prescribers.” The important paperwork comes from your doctor.

“As long as you’ve provided sufficient proof that you have a disability, and demonstrated that the animal is necessary to enable you to fully use and enjoy the apartment, your board would be well advised to allow the emotional support animal,” Khindri says. This is the case, even if you provide the information after you get the dog.

Access for service and support animals

Khindri points out that generally both service and emotional support animals are allowed in common areas of the co-op unless doing so poses health or safety risks to other residents. Balancing the risks and benefits to each resident can be tricky.

“In some situations, a board might request that you use the service elevator if, for example, another resident has a phobia of dogs,” Khindri says.

All animals in residential buildings, regardless of whether they are pets or service or support animals, are subject to nuisance, public health and safety laws. In some situations a board could seek to remove the animal, if for example it was aggressive or barking repeatedly.

“The board cannot charge you any fees for the animal but otherwise you generally have to follow all the other rules,” Khindri says.

Wagner, Berkow & Brandt, LLP is a NYC-based law firm concentrating in real estate, corporate, commercial litigation, and cooperative and condominium law. Founding members Steve Wagner and Bonnie Berkow have been recognized for their real estate expertise for more than 30 years. You can submit a question for this column or to ask about a legal consultation you can email the firm or call (646) 780-7272.

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