Law Review: Take care when refusing entry of service animal
I have written in earlier columns about the importance of honoring a request made by a disabled person for a guide dog, signal dog or service dog. Apparently, a certain homeowner association did not get the message.
A new Nevada case, Sanzaro v. Ardiente Homeowners Association, underscores the point.
NOT A MERE COMPANION DOG
Deborah Sanzaro suffered from a permanent painful disability which required her to use a walker. Sanzaro had a dog, Angel, a Chihuahua. Supposedly Angel was able to retrieve Sanzaro’s walker on occasion — a mighty feat for such a tiny dog.
Sanzaro and Angel were refused entry into Sanzaro’s community clubhouse at Ardiente Homeowners Association in Las Vegas, despite a doctor’s certificate requesting the dog be registered as a service animal. The trial court and Nevada Supreme Court upheld the Association’s denial of accommodation.
The Sanzaro’s were subjected to extensive community harassment and ultimately moved out of the community. The HOA fined Sanzaro and in the end foreclosed on her home to satisfy the fines. In response, Sanzaro sued the HOA and certain board members for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act — two federal laws that arguably address her situation. The ADA addresses disability laws and FHA concerns housing law.
ADA/FAIR HOUSING ACT
The federal district court had no problem determining that Sanzaro’s disability and lawsuit did not run afoul of the ADA because the court concluded that the association’s clubhouse within the gated community was private and not a “place of public accommodation.”
The court however upheld her claim against the Association and the management company and some individual board members — under principles of the FHA, imposing substantial money judgments in each instance. Take note board members.
ANGEL THE SERVICE DOG
The federal district court ruled it was “readily apparent” that Sanzaro was disabled and had a need for her (trained) service animal.
Sanzaro was not required to formally produce documents and a doctor’s letter to justify her request, but under the FHA was only required to ask “in a manner that a reasonable person would understand to be a request for an exception, change, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice or service provider because of a disability …” Once Sanzaro made the case for reasonable accommodation, the HOA was required “to articulate a non-discriminate reason for its action” were it to deny Sanzaro’s request.
California recognizes various types of service animals including guide dogs which assist the blind, signal dogs used with hearing-impaired persons and other service animals individually trained to the requirements of a person’s disability. Such animals might provide rescue work, diabetic or seizure alerts, pull a wheelchair or fetch dropped items. Persons may also have animals which provide emotional support. Unfortunately, some people try to pass off pets as service animals in an effort to gain access to public places, which blurs the line of what is a bona fide service animal.
Sanzaro v. Ardiente summarizes the five elements necessary to prevail on an FHA accommodation claim (which I will email on request).
My advice: Before an HOA or small business denies a request for entry by a person who appears to have a pet accompanying him or her, it should consider whether the pet may, in fact, be a service animal. The standard to document an animal’s assistance as a service animal is low. You may be treading on thin ice by refusing entry.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.