A service animal is trained to help an owner with a physical disability with their daily routines. This requires extensive training. In California, service animals are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA) and allowed to accompany their owners inside businesses that do not normally allow pets.
Also defined by federal law, an emotional support animal provides a therapeutic benefit to their owner simply through companionship. Owners who have a valid ESA letter from a mental health professional licensed to practice in California are entitled to protection when seeking housing and employment.
A psychiatric support animal is a special class of support animals and is defined by California State Law. It mostly falls in-between the two categories above. It covers animals, mostly dogs, who have specific training to assist their owner with non-physical disabilities. Examples of jobs performed by these dogs include helping their owner remember to take medications and gently waking up patients with panic disorders.
Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, a landlord is required to allow an emotional support animal to live with their owner in a rented home. Landlords cannot evict or restrict a renter because they have an emotional support animal. Additionally, landlords cannot ask for a pet deposit for an emotional support animal as they are not classed as pets.
Documentation may be required to show evidence and support the disability of the renter, but the owner should not have to show evidence that the animal is certified. The documentation will be in the form of an ESA letter like the ones provided by the licensed service providers who work with US Service Animals. However, do not use online companies that will generate an ESA letter for a small fee. Yes, letters from these companies are written by state-licensed therapists, but these letters will not legally hold up in court (should your landlord or roommate question its validity). ESA letters must be written by a licensed service provider who you are actively seeking care from. This is necessary because your provider must able to testify to your mental health state and provide documentation of sessions if necessary.
If a property does not usually allow pets, landlords still have to allow someone who has an emotional support animal as long as they have a letter from a mental health professional stating their need for the animal.
- Create a “resume” for your pet that includes a photo, favorite activities, certifications, and even a short adoption story. Extras could include a letter of reference from a current or most recent landlord, written proof that your dog has completed a training class, and a letter from the vet showing your pet is spayed or neutered and up-to-date on vaccines.
- Invite landlords to meet your pet.
- Explain your experience with your pet, make sure all of your roommates are on board, and be mindful of your pet's noise and damage levels.
Landlords are responsible for necessary maintenance work and repair on their property, but this does not include damage caused by tenants or their pets. If you are a pet owner, be aware that regular wear and tear and certain types of damage are common when living with a pet.
Hallmark signs of pet damage to watch out for include: clawed door frames, broken screen doors, chewed-on blinds, scratched floors and stains on the carpet or wood floors. Being a responsible and vigilant pet owner can help mitigate unwanted behaviors and damage from pets. To make sure you understand what you will and won’t be responsible for, be sure to read the pet policy in your lease carefully. It is standard to have the tenants be liable for all pet damage.
Legally, landlords can charge a pet deposit, pet rent or pet fee for nonservice animals. Keep in mind the pet deposit along with any other security deposits — due at the time of signing the lease — cannot exceed two month’s rent (three months for furnished apartments). Additionally, under California Civil Code section 1950.5 security deposits are deemed refundable but subject to deductions for pet-related repairs and cleanup.
A pet fee on the other hand is a one-time, nonrefundable fee that you pay upon move-in, and it will not go toward any pet damage.
California passed a law in 2012 that states landlords may not limit pets based on certain requirements. The law, known as SB 1229, makes it illegal for landlords to require that tenants have their pets declawed or devocalized (debarked). Both of these alterations require surgery and are irreversible, affecting the animal permanently. As such, California lawmakers made it illegal for landlords to require them as rental criteria for pets.
If a landlord, condominium association or other housing provider refuses to allow your assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation, you can file a lawsuit or an administrative complaint.
You can file an administrative complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) within one year of the most recent date of discrimination. Information on how to file a complaint with DFEH can be found at https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/complaintprocess/, or by calling (800) 884-1684 (voice) or (800) 700-2320 (TTY).
You can file an administrative a complaint with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, also within one year after the discrimination. Information on how to file a HUD complaint can be found at 1-800-669-9777 or: https://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/topics/housing_discrimination.
Violations of the laws discussed above may also be enforced through private lawsuits. Please be aware that statutes of limitations restrict the timeframe for filing litigation and that you could potentially lose claims if you do not act within the applicable statute of limitations. These deadlines can be as short as two years from the date of discrimination. If you are interested in pursuing litigation, you should consult with an attorney as soon as possible.
If you are seeking less than $10,000 in money damages, another option is to file a discrimination case in Small Claims Court. The statutes of limitations discussed above will apply. You cannot use a lawyer if you go to small claims court. For more information, see Disability Rights California, A Guide to Small Claims Court: How to Sue if a Business or Landlord Discriminates Against You Because of Your Disability, at: https://www.disabilityrightsca.org/publications/a-guide-to-small-claims-court-how-to-sue-if-a-business-or-landlord-discriminates.