A recent change to Maine law seeks to clarify the law regarding service animals and combat a perceived increase in misrepresentation of pets as service animals.  The new law, which took effect July 29, 2016, creates a distinction between “service animals” and “assistance animals,” and also increases penalties for misrepresentation of animals as service or assistance animals.

The change implements the recommendations of a legislative task force created in 2015, amid rising concern regarding misrepresentation of pets as service animals, and surging complaints of discrimination based on the use of service animals.  The number of discrimination complaints received by the Maine Human Rights Commission increased from 7 complaints in 2012 to 37 in 2015.  Those 37 complaints were greater than the number of complaints received by the Commission based on sexual orientation, religion, or pay inequality based on gender that year.

The new law, P.L.  2015, ch. 457, creates a distinction between “service animals” and “assistance animals.”  Service animals are dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for individuals with disabilities, directly related to their disability, such as guide dogs for the visually impaired.  “Assistance animals” can include service animals, but also include what are often called emotional support, comfort, or therapy animals.  Assistance animals are defined to include any animal (not just dogs) that a medical professional has determined necessary to mitigate the effects of a physical or mental disability, or that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled individual.

The distinction between service and assistance animals is significant because while providers of public accommodations must accommodate the use of service animals, there is no similar requirement for assistance animals.  Housing providers, absent a narrow set of special circumstances, must permit the use of both service and assistance animals by disabled individuals.

Finally, the new law doubles the existing fine for misrepresenting an animal as a service or assistance animal from $500 to $1000 for each instance of misrepresentation.  Examples of misrepresentation punishable under the law include creating or providing documents for an animal falsely identifying it as a service or assistance animal, fitting an animal that is not a service animal  with a service animal collar or vest, or representing that the animal is a service animal when it has not been trained as one.

Landlords and businesses unfamiliar with the law regarding service and assistance animals should seek the advice of counsel, particularly in light of the recent changes in the law.

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