Lawmakers advance bill penalizing people for lying about emotional support animals

Stock image | Photo by Kerkez/iStock/Getty Images Plus

ST. GEORGE — Utah lawmakers say proposed legislation penalizing renters for lying about owning an emotional support animal is for the benefit of both landlords and people with legitimate disabilities.

The bill, “Support Animal Amendments,” designated as H.B. 43 in the 2019 Utah Legislature, passed in the House and has received a favorable recommendation from the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

The bill’s primary function would be to impose criminal penalties on people who seek housing and lie about having a medical need for an emotional support animal.

Under current state law, people who lie about having a “service animal” can be charged with a class B misdemeanor, but no such penalty exists for “emotional support animals.”

“It’s becoming a problem,” bill sponsor Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said during a Jan. 28 reading in the House.

Utah Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

“I’ve heard a lot from service animal owners that the people with emotional support animals are kind of damaging their brand,” Dunnigan said, “because more and more people are saying ‘I qualify for an emotional support animal, you need to rent housing to me’ when they do not.’”

State law defines a “service animal” as a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual and other mental disabilities.

On the other hand, “emotional support animals” aren’t limited to being dogs, nor must they be trained for specific tasks.

“There’s a gentlemen who has a support alligator that he likes to cuddle for comfort,” Dunnigan said. “Support squirrels, peacocks, turkeys, chickens, have all been in the media in the last few months.”

Under the federal Fair Housing Act, people who have legitimate, doctor-approved need for such animals can’t be denied housing based on their need for an animal.

However, Dunnigan isn’t looking to change any state statute that could interfere with federal law, nor is he attempting to define exactly what constitutes an “emotional support animal.”

“This bill only deals with housing,” Dunnigan said. “Just like we already have for service animals, if you lie about having eligibility for an emotional support animal, it’s just the same penalty. It’s a misdemeanor. It doesn’t address the type, the kind, the process. It doesn’t do anything else, that’s all it does.”

Dunnigan said having a penalty in place for dishonest pet owners would also act as a deterrent for other people thinking about lying about their need for accommodation of an emotional support animal.

However, that idea doesn’t sit well with the Ogden-based disability advocacy group Roads to Independence.

“They say that it will be used as a deterrent, but our concern is that deterrent, if you want to call it that, is intimidation,” Roads to Independence Director Andy Curry said Tuesday during a public hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Stock image, St. George News

“When you do intimidation, you’re catching the whole gamut of people,” Curry said. “You’re catching the people that have the disability and you’re catching people that don’t.”

Curry suggested that there are alternatives to taking a law enforcement approach, such as awareness training for landlords.

Andrew Riggle, a public policy advocate with the Disability Law Center, also spoke in opposition to the bill.

“As part of our fair-housing work, the DLC takes hundreds of calls and represents hundreds of clients every year facing barriers to their ability to live independently,” Riggle said.

“Clients with support animals are people with debilitating anxiety, PTSD, postpartum depression, bipolar disorder or severe depression,” he explained. “These people need their support animals so badly that many of them would be unable to live independently without it.

“These people, real people with disabilities with real needs, face denials of their requests for accommodation every single day.”

Riggle said people making fraudulent claims about service or support animals are “exceedingly rare” in the experience of the Disability Law Center, arguing that legislation of this nature would just serve as yet another barrier to these people acquiring living accommodations.

When the bill was being considered in the House, Republican Rep. Raymond Ward, a primary care doctor based in Bountiful, said that while he is sympathetic to people who have a legitimate need for support animals, the rights of property owners should also be taken into account.

Utah Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

“The most common reasons for which emotional support animals are requested are for anxiety or depression,” he said. “That’s been my experience, and that’s a valid thing.

“But the person on the other side of the issue — the property owner whose property they didn’t want to have an animal there but now they may have to — is never involved in the discussion. I don’t see them, I don’t know them.”

Ward suggested the bill could make this process less “one-sided” and give property owners some recourse for grievances.

Representing the Utah Association of Realtors, Mike Ostermiller spoke in favor of the bill during Tuesday’s public hearing, saying it is a good “incremental” step toward making landlord-tenet transactions fairer while protecting those with legitimate disabilities.

“Just putting some basic, basic protections in place is good for the honest, sincere users and requesters of accommodation for support animals is the best thing we can do,” he said, “so that people who are using them legitimately, which is most of them, that they can continue to do that and that’s not tainted by the very few that are using it illegitimately.”

Paul Smith, representing the Utah Apartment Association, expressed a similar sentiment, saying:

Landlords want to meet the needs of the legitimately disabled … Some of the people most punished by the current system are the people with legitimate disabilities who are now being treated differently and with more skepticism.

When the bill came up for vote in the House, it received overwhelming bipartisan support, with all but two representatives voting in favor. All of Southern Utah’s representatives were among the “yea” votes.

In the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, it received a 6-2 vote in favor, with Southern Utah’s Sen. Evan Vickers among those voting in favor of advancing the bill for a vote in the Senate, where it is scheduled for a reading later this month.

Read more: See all St. George News reports and opinions on Utah Legislature 2019 issues

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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