The great news, if you live in California, is that residents of the Golden State have some of the most progressive state laws relating to emotional support animals (ESAs) in the country. In addition to the protections offered under federal law, California has also demonstrated that it will punish landlords that fail to accommodate emotional support animals. Yet, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, 40-percent of complaints to the Department of Housing and Urban Development are about disability discrimination, most from tenants that state that their landlords failed to reasonably accommodate them. It is important for both tenants and landlords in California to understand the rules regarding ESAs.
So, what is the latest news on ESA’s in California? What legal standing do they currently have? How can those looking to live with their ESA obtain an ESA Letter? Before getting an ESA letter, it is essential to understand what the current laws are and how they affect you and your animal.
What Does California Law State About Emotional Support Animals?
All residents of California with emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act and the ACAA which are federal laws. These laws and related guidance from the Department of Housing and the Department of Transportation allow ESAs to fly on planes and live in your home.
In 2016, a controversial bill was proposed in California that would have created additional burdens for owners of emotional support animals looking for accommodation from their landlords. However, that bill, known as AB2760, was pulled that May due to fierce opposition from those within animal and disability rights groups. Those groups argued that the proposed bill discriminated against people with mental illnesses and conflicted with existing federal law.
California law defines service animals (which are different from emotional support animals) under the same standards as the ADA along with similar protections. It is important to note however that emotional support animals are not service animals, and do not have the same protections under law. Service identification tags for service dogs are not mandatory in California, but many owners choose to obtain a service dog certificate for convenience. The laws pertaining to the disabled and emotional support animals in California include:
• The Unruh Civil Rights Act
• The California Disabled Persons Act (CDPA)
• The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
• Federal disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
How to Get an ESA Letter Online in California
In order to qualify your animal in California as an emotional support animal, you must have an ESA letter written by a California licensed mental health professional. The ESA letter must be 1.) written on the LMHP’s professional letterhead and 2.) must include their licensing information along with their signature.
These days, with the advent of new technologies, fulfilling your need for an ESA can be accomplished online. Online assessments can be used to recommend an ESA to a person in need of a support animal.
Make sure that any online organization that you work with connects you to a California licensed mental health professional so that your ESA letter is valid. Getting an ESA letter while you are in California from a non-California licensed mental health professional could get your ESA denied.
If you are in need of an ESA letter from a California licensed mental health professional, ESA Doctors can connect you to one online. To get started on the process, complete the online questionnaire in the link below.
Which Laws Protect my ESA from Landlords, Apartment Managers and HOA’s?
Landlords that attempt to discriminate against disabled people with emotional support animals will have a hard time winning their case. This is due to the protections that emotional support animals have under the Fair Housing Act.
The Fair Housing Act – The FHA prohibits discrimination against those who are disabled and requires housing providers to accommodate people with physical and mental impairments that limit one or more major activities unless those services that the provider has are ultimately altered.
California Housing Laws also aligns with the Fair Housing Act. So, if a landlord has a “no-pets” policy, the landlord can ask two questions: Does the tenant have a disability and does the animal provide support for that disability? If the answer is yes, then the landlord must accommodate the emotional support animal. If the person’s disability is not obvious, the landlord can’t demand specific details regarding the person’s condition but can ask for proof of the disability and need for the animal. That proof comes in the form of an ESA letter which can come from a psychiatrist, psychologist, registered nurse, social worker, doctor or other licensed mental health professional. Landlords are not permitted to ask for specifics about the disability or demand a diagnosis. Landlords cannot charge the tenant any fees or deposits relating to the emotional support animal, even if fees or deposits are charged for regular pets.
In cases where the landlord wrongfully refuses a tenant’s emotional support animal, the tenant can file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development within California. Complaints filed in this manner tend to favor the tenant, especially if they have a valid ESA letter and were denied without basis by the landlord.
Legal Cases for Emotional Support Animals in California
One instance of a landlord discriminating against a tenant with an emotional support animal took place in Sacramento. The landlord attempted to evict tenants with disabilities that had emotional support animals. In this case, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing reached a settlement with the landowner, who had owned several apartment complexes and rental homes in San Jose.
The DFEH alleged that soon after the landlord purchased an apartment complex, he sent a letter to tenants stating he did “not like to deal with pets of any kind” and that they could not “introduce any new pet or replacement pet.” The letter made no exception for ESAs. The landlord also wrote a series of letters alleging there was a flea problem and the solution was to get rid of the pets. Alternatively, the landlord required that the tenants provide a veterinarian letter verifying that the animals did not have fleas. The landlord issued a “three-day notice to perform or quit” to one of the tenants for allegedly violating the lease by having a “pet/animal in the apartment.” Ultimately, the landlord evicted two tenants with ESAs.
As a result of these actions, the landlord was charged with a fine of $100,000, will have to undergo fair-housing training for three years, and develop reasonable accommodation policies for current and future tenants. Each accommodation made for his tenants must also be recorded and sent to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing for the next three years. The settlement also included compensation to the tenants as well as attorney fees and costs. The Director of the DFEH made clear that it is “unlawful to harass or retaliate against tenants who make requests to live with emotional support or companion animals…..The law requires landlords to modify policies, including no-pet policies, to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities.”
Your ESA Letter Must come from a California Licensed Mental Health Professional
Another case involved a real estate company which refused a would-be tenant that had emotional support dogs. The woman argued that her dogs helped treat her depression and attention deficit disorder, which are both recognized as disabilities. She and her boyfriend were originally told by a manager at the real estate company that they could move in with their emotional support dogs without having to pay a deposit fee. However, that changed when a manager requested documentation showing a medical need for the animal. The manager also stating that if the dogs did not perform tasks, the prospective tenants would not be allowed to move in.
The prospective tenant provided her ESA letter but her application was still denied. The landlord allegedly had a policy to deny tenants who went online to get recommendations for emotional support animals. An attorney from Disability Rights California has stated that an ESA letter from a mental-health professional is typically all that’s legally needed before a landlord must accommodate a support animal, even if that letter was obtained remotely. The prospective tenant in this instance made the mistake however of obtaining her letter through a counselor licensed in Colorado, not California. Fortunately, her local psychiatrist agreed that her ESAs would help with her disability. When obtaining ESA letters online, it is critical that the service connects you with a licensed mental health professional that is actually licensed in your state.
The real estate company later settled the dispute for $175,000, and also had to pay plaintiffs legal fees, “provide training to employees, and hire a Compliance Manager to review requests for reasonable accommodation.” The DFEH in a press release stated that “[t]he companies charged pet deposits and pet rent, imposed breed and size restrictions for legitimate support animals, and failed to engage in an interactive process to verify that tenants had genuine disabilities. The firms also lacked a uniform reasonable accommodation policy and failed to train their leasing professionals at their apartment communities about fair housing responsibilities toward people with disabilities. As a result, some tenants were evicted from their apartments or had their lease offers revoked. Others were forced to pay additional rent.”
This case serves as a cautionary tale to landlords that try to impose restrictions on a tenant’s ability to live with their ESA. The case is also a lesson for patients who should also make sure they are connected to a mental health professional licensed in California.
Make sure your ESA letter is from a California licensed mental health professional.
Legitimate ESA Letter Requirements for California
Seeing if you qualify for an ESA letter first involves talking to a licensed therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist, and requesting an ESA letter either online or in person.
If you are getting your ESA letter online, make sure that the LMHP is properly licensed in California. Working with an LMHP through ESA Doctors ensures that the therapist that you are working with has been vetted and is actually licensed in the State of California to assist you.
If you meet an LMHP face to face, it is helpful if the LMHP understands how emotional support animals will help aid in the major disabilities you face, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
If your licensed mental health professional provides you with an ESA letter, you will be able to have your emotional support animal accompany you in housing complexes and during air travel.
However, even with a legitimate ESA letter, it is important to know your rights under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. Landlords and airline employees might try to deny reasonable accommodations for living or traveling with your emotional support animal if you are not well prepared.
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