NJ condo boards owe residents thousands for banning support animals
Two pet owners who say they were discriminated against because they were not allowed to have their support animals live with them scored victories after a state watchdog agency sicced attorneys on their condo boards.
The settlements were announced by the state Attorney General's Office, with one person from Perth Amboy getting $10,000 and other concessions, and another from Ridgefield Park getting $16,000.
"These are fair settlements that resolve troubling cases — cases in which residents with a documented disability were treated in 'hardball' fashion by governing boards that apparently did not recognize the distinction between a pet and a clinically-prescribed emotional support animal," Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.
In the Perth Amboy case, a woman said her request to keep a support dog that her doctor confirmed kept her from taking opioids was denied. While the Harbortown Sail community allowed condo owners to keep pets, those who rented unit were prohibited from having them, according to Grewal. When the woman and her husband signed a one-year lease in 2015, the woman had already been diagnosed with several conditions including lupus, diabetes and neuropathy.
A month after moving in, the woman was advised that she could not keep the dog, at which point she sent a letter from her physician stating that she "meets the definition of disabled" and that she needs the dog to cope. The letter was rejected by the community's board, at least in part because it was not written on a physician's prescription pad.
A letter was also sent to the woman's husband advising him that they were being evicted. That order was eventually rescinded when the couple informed the board that they had in fact gotten rid of the dog.
In addition to the cash settlement, the board has agreed to revise its policies for reviewing exemptions to its pet rules, including the requirement that requests come on a prescription pad. The new policy must also "acknowledge that there is a distinction between a service animal, such as a service dog, and an emotional support animal," and recognize that "service dogs are not considered pets and shall be entitled to full and equal access to all housing accommodations," the statement from Grewal said.
In the Ridgefield Park case, the man wrote a letter to the board asking permission to have a 5-pound terrier as an emotional support animal, as well as letters from his psychologist and a physician noting that he needed the animal to go about his daily life. The community's board sent the man a letter stating that they were "extremely disturbed" by the request and accused him of "fraudulently" signing a "no pet/sublet" letter when he got the home.
The man did not submit the letter from the physician because he could not get a "physician's verification request form," which he was told to submit, when in fact there is no such form. The board sent the man a notice that he was in violation of the no-pets policy and that he would be fined $25 per week for as long as he had the dog. The man was also threatened to have his ownership interest in the unit terminated and sold at public auction.
As part of the settlement, property managers of the community must undergo anti-discrimination training and develop policies and procedures to comply with the state Law Against Discrimination.
Grewal said the settlements should be a "message to landlords" as well as governing bodies for homeowners associations and other communities "that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) was created to protect the rights of people with disabilities."
Grewal said that applies just as much to service and support animals as it does other forms of disabilities covered under the law.