Rights of Service Animals and Their Owners

Rights of Service Animals and Their Owners

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A resident greets Melly, the pet therapy dog on staff at United Methodist Communities in Ocean City.

By ANDREW J. LUCA

Many of us consider our animals a member of the family. We feed, shelter and protect them because we love our furry companions, and they need us to take care of them.

Sometimes, however, it is we who need them – physically and/or emotionally. Service animals provide a significant health benefit to a growing segment of our society and that service relationship is protected from discrimination by law.

ADA and NJLAD:

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA), a federal law, as well as New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), protect against discrimination encountered by those using a service animal.

The ADA defines a service animal as a “… dog that is individually trained to perform tasks or do work for the benefit of a person with a disability.”

NJLAD, a state law, extends the ADA’s definition further by defining a service animal as “… any dog individually trained to the requirements of a person with a disability.”

Seeing eye dogs, hearing dogs for the hearing impaired and mobility dogs, whose broad range of abilities includes pulling wheelchairs to pushing elevator buttons, are commonplace in today’s world.

Increasingly, trained canines are being used by families and health-related organizations to detect harmful allergens, alert owners or their family members of an oncoming seizure or warn of elevated levels of epinephrine, serotonin or cortisol in their owner’s body, which can lead to a panic attack or other health-related event.

Public Accommodations:

Both the ADA and NJLAD protect a service dog in almost all public accommodations such as, but not limited to, restaurants, public transportation, hotels, entertainment venues, homeless shelters, gyms, parks and libraries.

To enjoy these legal protections, the dog must be in the immediate custody of its owner at all times and the canine must have been trained by a recognized training facility for the services they provide.

Understandably, should a service dog pose a threat to the health and safety of other patrons by acting aggressively, the establishment can ask that the dog be removed or refuse service.

Importantly, no establishment can request an additional fee from a service dog owner for that individual’s use of the facility. Yet should their service dog cause any damage to the premises or injure another patron, the service animal owner can be held liable.

Emotional Support Animals:

Service animals are defined by both the ADA and NJLAD as trained dogs performing specific functions for individuals with physical disabilities. However, the law also acknowledges and protects the use of Emotional Support Animals (ESA).

An ESA is any animal, not just a dog, that improves at least one symptom of a person’s disability. An important distinction is that ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks but proof of one’s need for an ESA must be prescribed by one’s health care professional, medical provider or mental health specialist.

Often, the most frequent occurrences of ESA discrimination originate in the housing arena. In these instances, the Fair Housing Act (FHA), another federal law, coupled with the ADA/NJLAD serves to protect those individuals in need.

Under the law, should an individual’s apartment building or condo association maintain a “no pet policy,” an ESA owner can apply to the organization for a reasonable accommodation. Traditionally, an applicant submits proof of the disability and a letter from their health care professional.

Residential buildings and landlords are not required to permit an ESA if doing so would create an undue financial or administrative burden. At the same time, housing providers are prevented from unfettered questioning of an applicant regarding their disability under the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations.

It is recommended that individuals using an ESA check with the housing provider to determine if they have a “pet policy” or if similar accommodations have been made for other residents.

A Century of Service:

Almost 100 years ago, Morris Frank, a blind man, was intrigued by Dorothy Harrison Eustis’ training of dogs to serve as guides for veterans blinded during World War I. The two started “The Seeing Eye” in 1929 and its headquarters are presently located in Morris Township, N.J.

They confronted occasional push-back from a portion of society when their trained canine guides entered a business. Today, modern laws have since been enacted to prohibit the lingering discrimination that may still be encountered by those benefiting from the use of service animals.

If you believe your rights as a service animal owner have been violated, you may file an administrative complaint with New Jersey’s Division of Civil Rights at https://bias.njcivilrights.gov/en-US/.

In the alternative, you have the right to file a Civil Complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey. For assistance with representing yourself in Court, click here: https://www.njcourts.gov/self-help/represent-yourself.

About the Author: Andrew J. Luca, Esquire, is a co-founding member of the CKL Law Group, LLP and has been practicing Real Estate and Consumer Fraud law in New Jersey for nearly 20 years.