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When Can a Landlord Legally Reject an ESA? 

J. Courtney Cunningham Attorney at Law  May 2, 2024

Emotional support animals (ESAs) play a crucial role in the mental and emotional support of individuals with recognized disabilities, and federal and state laws provide certain protections for ESA owners to ensure they can enjoy their homes with these important companions.

For the most part, landlords cannot deny an ESA animal from living with their owner; however, there are instances where landlords can legally reject an ESA. Understanding the details around these instances is essential for both landlords and tenants. 

Grounds for Landlord Rejection of an ESA

Despite these protections, there are scenarios where a landlord may legitimately deny an ESA request. In general, here are some reasons a landlord can deny an ESA: 

  • Illegitimate ESA Letter: A landlord can reject an ESA request if the ESA letter is determined to be fraudulent or not issued by a licensed mental health professional. Authentic documentation is essential for ESA accommodation. This can happen, even when done ignorantly. With the rise of online therapists, so are online scams. If you're looking to use a therapist online to write an ESA letter, it's important to differentiate the difference between legitimate therapists/doctors and scams.  

  • Financial Hardship: If accommodating the ESA would impose an undue financial burden on the landlord, they may have grounds for denial. This scenario is rare but possible if the presence of the ESA significantly increases property insurance rates or requires expensive modifications. 

  • Danger or Health Risks: Landlords can deny an ESA if there's credible evidence that the animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, or if past behavior of the animal indicates a potential for property damage. 

  • Animal Size and Type: Large or exotic animals might be refused if they are inherently incompatible with the landlord's property. This can be due to limited space, the property’s inability to safely accommodate certain types or sizes of animals, or local regulations regarding animal types. 

  • Apartment Size: Landlords who manage a building with four or fewer dwelling units, where one of the units is occupied by the landlord, are exempt from the FHA rules regarding ESAs. This exemption also applies to private homeowners who do not own more than three single-family houses and do not use a broker or a real estate agent to rent these houses. 

Each of these potential grounds requires careful consideration and should be well-documented by the landlord to justify the rejection. 

ESA Rights

Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), tenants with ESAs enjoy certain rights. The FHA prohibits housing discrimination based on disability, which means landlords must make reasonable accommodations for tenants who require the assistance of an ESA to ensure equal opportunity in housing.

This protection is also extended to tenants under state laws, making it crucial to know the detailed requirements and exceptions of each jurisdiction. 

Landlords who refuse to provide reasonable accommodations for ESAs on prohibited grounds, including disability, can face legal repercussions such as fines and punitive damages. Consequently, it's incumbent on landlords to be well-versed in the laws that govern these topics and act accordingly. 

Reasonable Accommodation Requests 

Making a "reasonable accommodation" refers to a modification or exception to a rule or policy that enables a person with a disability to fully enjoy their housing rights.

Tenants looking to keep an ESA in their home must make a formal request for reasonable accommodation, typically through a written letter. This letter should be clear and specific, outlining the need for accommodation and the supportive function of the animal. 

If a request for an ESA is rejected, the landlord must provide a valid reason supported by the aforementioned legal grounds. The onus is on the landlord to prove that the rejection was justified and not based on discriminatory motives. 

Steps to Take if an ESA Request Is Unjustly Rejected

If a tenant believes their request for an ESA has been rejected unfairly, there are steps they can take to address the situation: 

  1. Seek Mediation: Consider seeking mediation through a neutral third party to resolve the dispute without legal action. 

  2. File a Complaint: If mediation fails, filing a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development or pursuing a lawsuit may be necessary to protect your rights. 

  3. Document Everything: Keep thorough records of all communications and interactions with the landlord related to the ESA request, including any rejections and reasons provided. 

  4. Consult Legal Counsel: In complex or contentious cases, seeking the advice of an attorney who has experience in fair housing laws and ESA accommodations can be invaluable. My firm serves those in Miami, Florida, and the surrounding areas—including Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville, and The Villages.  

  5. Be Proactive: Tenants can also be proactive in preventing rejections by preparing a well-documented and thorough ESA request right from the start. 

Understanding these steps and adhering to the regulatory frameworks can help both parties avoid disputes and foster a cooperative living environment. 

Protect Your Rights Today

The balance between the ESA owner's right to reasonable accommodation and a landlord's right to maintain expected standards in their property is a delicate one. But with a clear understanding of these rights and responsibilities, both landlords and tenants can foster an environment of mutual respect and compliance with the law.

For more on how to handle ESA requests and ensure legal compliance, reach out to my firm in Miami, Florida—J. Courtney Cunningham Attorney at Law—today for support.