California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) makes it unlawful
to refuse “to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies,
practices, or services when these accommodations may be necessary to afford
a disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”
Both mental and physical disabilities fall within the definition of disability.
Reasonable accommodations can include allowing a person with a disability
to have a companion animal in their home, despite any pet restrictions
Unlike service animals, companion animals are not specially trained. The
benefit of companion animals comes instead from the innate qualities of
the animal, such as their friendliness and ability to interact with people.
Because companion animals are not service animals, individuals do not
need to present evidence that an animal is specially trained in order
for the animal to be considered a companion. Additionally, because they
are not considered pets, an association may not charge an individual a
pet fee for keeping a companion animal.
Courts have made it clear that allowing a companion animal despite a “no
pets” policy can be a reasonable accommodation for individuals with
physical or mental disabilities. However, companion animals will not always
be considered a reasonable accommodation. Instead, the determination of
whether a companion animal should be allowed is to be made on a case-by-case
basis, and depends on the facts of each situation. In order for an individual
to be protected under FEHA, they must show that they have a disability,
that a companion animal aids in alleviating the disability and that there
is a medical need to keep the animal.
Associations must take caution when deciding whether to deny a request
to maintain a companion animal. In a 2017 press release by the U.S. Department
of Housing and Urban Development, it was announced that California landlords
settled a Fair Housing Pet Discrimination Case for $72,000. It was alleged
that the owners of the property discriminated against a tenant who required
a service dog that alerts the tenant when she is experiencing physiological
changes and helps ameliorate many of her disability-related symptoms.
It was also claimed that the disabled tenant was subject to discriminatory
statements and retaliation which included false accusations that the animal
was disruptive and bit maintenance workers.
Additionally, because only “reasonable” accommodations must
be made, an association may deny a request to maintain a companion animal
if the animal is unduly burdensome. Considerations in determining if an
animal is unduly burdensome can include whether the animal poses a threat
to others or whether insurance or finances will be affected. Unfortunately,
California law currently does not have guidelines as to the exact type
or breed of animal that may constitute a companion. Therefore, associations
should not make a determination of whether an animal is unduly burdensome
based solely on the breed or size of the animal.