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NJ Supreme Court Rules in Favor of ESA at Condo!

NJ Supreme Court Rules in Favor of ESA at Condo!

Scott 4 June 17, 2024
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Requests by a resident to have an emotional support animal that would violate a housing unit’s occupancy agreement must be analyzed under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled.

As is often the case in the employer-employee context, the Court’s decision in Players Place II Condominium Association, Inc. v. K.P., shows that housing disputes involving claims of discrimination that include requests for accommodation are often fact-intensive and call for an analysis with shifting burdens.

Background
Here, the justices considered a case in which a man (K.P.) and his significant other (B.F.) live in a condominium property that K.P. purchased. B.F. had previously been diagnosed with “several mental health conditions.”

Players Place II Condominium Association (the Association) maintained rules that provided significant restrictions on what animals could occupy the property. For example, the pet policy limited pets to those weighing 30 pounds or less, mandated that pets be registered with the Association, and barred any pet that is a “nuisance” to unit owners. The Association’s rules had an exception for service dogs used by people who are blind, but made no mention of emotional support animals.

Shortly after B.F. moved in, K.P. notified the Association that they were planning to adopt a service animal that would likely exceed the 30-pound maximum, and K.P. asked what medical documentation would be needed. Three days after this email and before receiving a response, they adopted a dog that eventually grew to 63 pounds. Once the Association responded that it would not permit such a pet, K.P. stated they already adopted one, and also provided medical documentation from B.F.’s provider that she suffered from a “mood and anxiety disorder” and having the pet would help her.

Litigation Unleashed
Counsel for the Association informed the couple that as long as the dog remained in the unit, the Association would be filing suit. K.P. in response stated that if the Association denied the request for the emotional support animal, then he would file a disability discrimination complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Association filed suit, alleging K.P. was in violation of the rules, regulations, bylaws, and master deed, and had failed to register the animal; K.P. filed a counterclaim alleging violations of state and federal anti-discrimination laws, including the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

The case proceeded to trial. There was extensive testimony regarding the mental health conditions that B.F. suffered from, including bipolar II disorder, panic disorder, acute post-traumatic stress disorder, and either ADD or ADHD. There was also testimony from multiple mental health providers that the emotional support animal was helping alleviate some of the mental health issues. Testimony from witnesses also indicated that if the dog were taken away, it would have a detrimental effect on B.F.’s well-being. K.P. and B.F. also testified as to the benefits the dog had on her well-being.

Trial and Appellate Rulings
The trial court found B.F. did not suffer from a disability, and dismissed the counterclaims. On equitable grounds, however, the trial court permitted the dog to stay in the unit because of the positive effect it had on B.F.’s well-being.

Chief Justice Rabner wrote for a unanimous Court that when an individual seeks a reasonable accommodation in the form of an emotional support animal, the individual “must show that they have a disability under the LAD and demonstrate that the requested accommodation may be necessary to afford them ‘an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.’” (quoting N.J.A.C. 13:13-3.4(f)(2)).

The burden then shifts to the housing provider to prove that the emotional support animal request is unreasonable. The Court’s opinion emphasized the importance of housing providers and the resident(s) engaging in an interactive, back and forth process to find a resolution. However, if that does not resolve the issue, courts remain available to perform the balancing of interests that they are often called upon to assess in the employer-employee context.

The Court also cited favorably to emotional support animal guidance previously published by HUD and the NJ Department on Civil Rights (the DCR). HUD noted that emotional support animals are not pets because they help alleviate symptoms suffered by individuals with disabilities. Therefore, a pet policy cannot be used to restrict use of an emotional support animal. And HUD expressly allows residents to request a reasonable accommodation through an “assistance animal,” the determination of which is made through the interactive process. The DCR, appearing as amicus, echoed this analysis, also stating that a housing provider cannot simply reject outright a request for an accommodation.

Turning back to the case, the Court emphasized that the LAD provides two definitions of a disability: “any mental, psychological, or developmental disability . . . which [1] prevents the typical exercise of any bodily or mental functions or [2] is demonstrable, medically or psychologically, by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Because experts for B.F. and the Association both diagnosed B.F. with psychological disabilities, the second disability definition had been satisfied. Additional testimony also supported the positive impact the dog had on B.F.’s mental health ailments. This testimony supported the second showing a resident must make, that the requested accommodation is necessary to allow her an “equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

The Court recognized that once this initial burden is satisfied, the burden moves to the housing provider to establish that allowing the emotional support animal would “fundamentally alter the housing provider’s operations or impose an undue financial or administrative burden on the housing provider.”

Although the Court left the ultimate determination of whether the Association could meet its burden on remand, it did note that trial testimony established that there were no complaints about the dog, it didn’t bark, and it was not a nuisance or disruptive.

4 Replies to “NJ Supreme Court Rules in Favor of ESA at Condo!”

  1. Great. Excellent conclusion. Most condo assns especially ones with older residents do not want animals FOR ANY REASON. AND that’s not fair to residents with legitimate medical or mental issues

  2. NJ got it right. Homeowner Associations are generally horrific. I’ve battled many, one, over a dog. I now iwn a ranch in the South if Texas. I can have a Giraffe, if I wanted to.

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