Florida recently passed new laws governing emotional support animals (ESA) which go into effect on July 1, 2020. These new laws clarify how residents of Florida can properly qualify for an emotional support animal and affirm the special rights ESA owners have. These rules were also intended to address a growing concern that tenants are purchasing illegitimate documentation for emotional support animals and wrongly passing off their pets as emotional support animals. The new rules set forth how tenants can obtain effective ESA documentation, including through a telehealth provider

In this article, we will summarize key points from the new Florida law and examine what steps current and prospective ESA owners should take in order to comply. Under the new law, residents of Florida who falsely claim their pet is an emotional support animal without following the correct procedures may be subject to legal liability and penalties. Now more than ever, it is important to understand your rights as an ESA owner and obtain your ESA documentation from a reputable source.

If you’re looking to qualify for ESA documentation in Florida, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a licensed health care professional that can assess whether an emotional support animal is right for you. 

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Protections for Florida Tenants who Own Emotional Support Animals

The new rules in Florida are similar in many ways to Federal Fair Housing rules for emotional support animals and borrow many of the same concepts. An emotional support animal in Florida is an animal that provides assistance or therapeutic emotional support to its owner by its mere presence. An ESA does not need any special training to work or perform tasks for its owner. 

Florida’s laws prohibit housing providers from discriminating against tenants with a need for an emotional support animal. ESA owners are allowed to live with their animal companions as “reasonable accommodation”, even in buildings that generally prohibit pets. Landlords are also not permitted to charge extra compensation for allowing the animal, meaning they cannot charge a fee or pet deposit for ESAs. 

Housing providers in Florida must generally accept a valid request from a tenant to live with their emotional support animal, with certain exceptions. A landlord can deny a reasonable accommodation request for an ESA that poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or poses a direct threat of damage to property, but only if those threats cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation. 

The Fair Housing Act gives emotional support animals special rights when it comes to apartments, condos, and rental homes.
The Fair Housing Act and Florida law gives emotional support animals special rights when it comes to apartments, condos, and rental homes.

How to Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal in Florida

Qualifying for an emotional support animal under Florida law is similar to the procedure under federal Fair Housing rules. Generally, owners of emotional support animals have invisible disabilities such as depression, anxiety, PTSD or phobias. A tenant can prove that they have a disability related need for an emotional support animal by submitting an ESA recommendation letter from a licensed health care practitioner to their landlord. 

A wide range of health care practitioners are permitted to provide ESA letters in Florida, including:

  • psychologists
  • mental health counselors
  • marriage and family therapists
  • social workers
  • psychiatrists
  • doctors
  • registered nurses
  • and other licensed professionals.

Telehealth providers who provide their services remotely are also permitted to provide ESA documentation.

In addition to being allowed to ask for an ESA letter from a licensed provider, landlords are also permitted to request proof of compliance with state and local requirements for licensing and vaccination of the ESA. An emotional support animal is not exempt from general licensing and vaccination rules that generally apply to all animals in the tenant’s jurisdiction.

Similar to Fair Housing rules, owners with emotional support animals have certain rights to privacy when it comes to sensitive, confidential details about their medical condition. Landlords are not permitted:

  • to request information that details the diagnosis or severity of the tenant’s disability, and
  • they cannot request any medical records relating to the tenant’s disability. 

The new rules in Florida also address landlords that create unnecessary barriers for tenants who request ESA accommodation. Under the new rules, housing providers cannot require the use of a specific form or a notarized document. Landlords also cannot deny an ESA request solely because the tenant did not follow the landlord’s routine procedure for ESA accommodations.

That means that landlords must consider an ESA request if the tenant submits valid ESA documentation from their health care practitioner. They cannot further insist that the tenant submit additional forms or follow a different procedure if the tenant has otherwise complied with ESA rules. 

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Invalid Forms of ESA Documentation in Florida

Like the recent guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Housing, the new law in Florida attempts to curb the spread of inadequate forms of ESA documentation. In Florida, registrations, identification cards, patches, certificates or similar registrations obtained online will not by themselves be sufficient to establish the tenant has a disability-related need for an emotional support animal. 

Florida’s ESA rules make clear that in order to have a valid emotional support animal, the tenant must possess documentation from a licensed health care practitioner.

All prospective ESA owners should understand that a mere certificate, ID or registration bought online will not be enough to properly qualify their animal companion as an ESA. 

If you do not currently have a licensed health care professional familiar with your mental health, or you are having difficulty finding one, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a licensed practitioner. The practitioners we work with are licensed professionals who are knowledgeable about emotional support animals. They can help evaluate whether an ESA is right for you and, if you qualify, can provide you with documentation to submit to your landlord. 

Red flags for fake esa letters

Consequences for Faking the Need for an Emotional Support Animal 

In Florida, it is now more important than ever to ensure that your ESA documentation is from a licensed health care practitioner. The new law in Florida contains penalties for tenants who knowingly provide fraudulent documentation for an emotional support animal. Providing fake documentation in Florida is punishable as a misdemeanor offense. 

It is never a good idea under any circumstance to provide fake documents for an emotional support animal. Misrepresenting your pet as an assistance animal is unethical and harms the reputation of the community of emotional support animal owners who obtain their documents from reliable sources. In Florida, presenting illegitimate ESA documentation may now result in potential legal consequences as well. 

If you are interested in qualifying for an emotional support animal in Florida, make sure you are being evaluated by a licensed health care professional. The new rules in Florida make clear that solely presenting a certification, registration or ID is not sufficient to qualify an emotional support animal. It is important for ESA owners to be aware that these documents and accessories are not enough to make a valid claim for reasonable accommodation of an ESA. 

Current and prospective ESA owners in Florida should possess a valid ESA recommendation letter from a licensed professional before requesting ESA accommodation from their housing provider. If you are interested in qualifying for an ESA in Florida, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a licensed healthcare professional that is knowledgeable about emotional support animals.  

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