It is unlawful for a landlord to unreasonably deny a disabled tenant a support, emotional support, or service animal or attempt to evict or refuse to rent to a disabled tenant with a support or service animal. A landlord is also prohibited from requiring pet rent or pet deposits for support or service animals. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Fair Housing Act, a landlord who denies a disabled tenant a support or service animal is exposed to liability for actual damages, punitive damages, triple damages, emotional distress damages, and attorney fees. Gov’t Code § 12900 et. seq.; Civ. Code § 51 et. seq.; 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f).
A landlord must make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation is any change to a landlord’s rules, policies, or services that does not cause an undue financial or administrative burden or fundamentally alter the nature of the property. A service or emotional support animal is a reasonable accommodation. See Auburn Woods v FEHA, 121 Cal. App. 4th 1578, 1593 (2004). Under FEHA, a disability is any chronic health issue that, if left untreated, would limit a major life activity, such as working, walking, developing meaningful relationships, or lifting. Gov’t Code § 12926(j, l). Chronic mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, would be considered disabilities under FEHA if they affect a major life activity. Auburn Woods, 121 Cal. App. 4th at 1593.
When a tenant with a disability makes a request for an accommodation, the landlord is required to engage in a good faith, “interactive process.” Auburn Woods, 121 Cal. App. 4th at 1598. In other words, a landlord cannot flatly deny a tenant’s request for a support or service animal.
When making a request for an emotional support or service animal, a tenant should provide a landlord with medical proof of the disability, along with an explanation of how the animal is an important part of the tenant’s medical wellness. A note from a medical provider is usually sufficient, provided that it states the tenant is disabled, the life activity affected, and the medical benefit of the support animal. The landlord cannot request the specific diagnosis from the tenant, but if a tenant feels comfortable disclosing a specific diagnosis, it may make the request more palatable to the landlord.
Before requesting an accommodation from a landlord, a tenant with a service animal should register with the local animal control agency. In San Francisco, the agency is Animal Care and Control. Tenants with emotional support animals, which are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for their guardians, do not need to register with their local agency.
Damages for the refusal of a landlord to provide a disabled tenant with a reasonable accommodation include:
- Loss of a rent-controlled apartment or long-term lease;
- Emotional distress damages, including a monetary award for the effect on family relationships and the loss of personal integrity, dignity and privacy; and
- Punitive damages of three times actual damages
Gov’t Code §§ 12970(b), 12980(c), 12987(b) ; see also Dept. Fair Empl. & Hous. v. Fulkerson F.E.H.C. Dec. No. 07-05-P (Sept. 18, 2007) .
In a rent-controlled jurisdiction, where a tenant is forced to vacate a below market-rate unit because of the refusal of a landlord to provide a reasonable accommodation, the tenant may make a claim for future rent damages under a constructive eviction theory. One court has upheld lost future rent damages for twenty years. Chacon v. Litke, 181 Cal. App. 4th 1234 (2010). This amount would be tripled under FEHA. Civ. Code § 3345(b).