I’ve been working with Resident Owned Communities (ROC’s) in Florida for almost two decades and problems with pets continue to be a source of aggravation for managers, board members, and residents alike. Pet rules come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s a small sample of pet regulations that boards and managers are trying to enforce in their communities:
- No pets allowed and no exceptions.
- Pets allowed only in certain sections (aka "the Pet Section") of the community.
- Indoor cats allowed (birds and aquarium type fish also) but no dogs.
- Pets allowed but only up to a certain weight limit (my personal "favorite"–ever tried putting an energetic terrier on a scale–and exactly who serves as the "weight police"?)
- Pet allowed except for certain breeds of dogs deemed "dangerous" by the board of directors, the community’s insurance company, and/or the resident "canine expert".
Whatever rules a community is trying to enforce (and the five I’ve listed above are just the tip of the iceberg), sooner or later, every community is faced with one or more residents that insist on attempting to violate that community’s pet rules. Once the violation is brought to the attention of the board or the manager, you can be certain that many community residents will be "taking sides" on how (and whether) the community’s leadership deals with the violation.
There are several very important factors that should be considered when board members and managers determine how to deal with the violation of a pet rule, including the following:
- Has the resident provided sufficient documentation or otherwise established that he or she is "disabled" and requires the pet as a "reasonable accomodation" under the the federal and state provisions of the Fair Housing Laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act? Is the pet certified as a "service animal"? In these situations, community leadership is required to allow the resident to have the pet and should not provide any information to anyone as to the nature of the resident’s disability. Board members and managers should simply state that the resident’s request to have a pet was allowed "on the advice of counsel". In other words, blame it on the attorney (I assure the communities I work with that I have thick skin and it goes with the territory).
- Are there any other violations of the pet rules in the community that any member of the board knows about? If so, the board should be prepared to take action against every person that is violating pet rules. One of my favorite conversations occurs when a resident that has received a notice of a pet rule violation calls me to complain that he or she is being harassed and "singled out" by the manager or the board because other residents in the community are violating the pet rules and the board hasn’t taken any action against those residents. This allows me to assure the resident that the manager or board will take action against any other resident violating the pet rules and to ask that resident to provide me with the names of the other residents violating the rules. I can have this conversation only if I’m confident that the board has taken and will continue to take the appropriate action against other residents violating the pet rules.
- Is the board and the community prepared to incur the costs of enforcing the pet rules? When verbal and written requests fail to persuade the resident to remove the pet. the board has to decide whether the importance of enforcing the rule outweighs the money that the community will have to spend to have its attorney take the steps needed to attempt to force the resident to comply with the pet rule. If the resident is a unit owner in a cooperative or condomium, the community will have to submit the dispute to mandatory non-binding arbitration as required by Florida Statute Section 718.1255 (for condominium associations) or Florida Statute Section 719.106 ( for cooperative associations). In addition, because the arbitration proceedings are "non-binding," even if the association wins at the arbitration, the resident can delay removing the pet by filing a court action. This may result in the association having to try its case twice with a substantial increase in its legal costs that may or may not be recoverable from the resident violating the pet rule. Even where the resident is a non-member mobile homeowner subject to an eviction action under Florida Statute Section 723.061 (without the need to first submit the dispute to non-binding arbitration), costs and legal fees will be incurred by the association. In addition, anytime a dispute comes before an arbitrator or a judge there is no way to guarantee that the case will be decided in the community’s favor and there are not many people that enjoy the stress and preparation involved in testifying under oath in a courtroom setting or at an arbitration.
I’ve always suggested that another factor to be considered by boards and managers when dealing with violations of pet rules is the behavior of the pet. Would you rather be living next to a well-behaved Great Dane that has never disturbed anyone in the community or a yapping lap dog that barks at all hours of the day and night?
In some cases, the board may decide that a particular pet rule needs to be revised or removed entirely. For example, perhaps there are now so many cats that have been allowed to live in the community in spite of a "no cat" rule that it makes no sense to keep that rule in the community’s governing regulations. However, the time to make that decision is not when the community is in the midst of a dispute with a stubborn owner who insists that the pet rules apply to everyone but him. It’s on these occasions that the board has to take a reasonable but at the same time forceful approach to the enforcement of its community rules.