Changes to Wisconsin Landlord-Tenant Laws: Service and Support Animals, and More
Governor Walker signed into law Wisconsin Act 317, also known as the ‘Landlord’s Omnibus Bill’ (the “Act”) on April 16, 2018. The Act has some major impacts to residential landlord-tenant laws which ease some constraints put on landlords in managing rental properties. The most significant of these are discussed below.
Service and Support Animals
The Act aims to appease landlords’ frustration over ambiguities and loopholes in the law which some landlords claim tenants have taken advantage of to keep animals in rental properties that would otherwise be prohibited under lease agreements. The Act also makes a distinction between emotional support animals and service animals.
Service animals are animals that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual that has a disability and a disability-related need for such animal. Obvious examples include guide dogs for vision-impaired individuals. The Act makes it discriminatory and illegal for landlords to prohibit service animals in rental properties. However, landlords may ask for proof of the disability, unless the disability is obvious. A failure to give such proof upon request provides sufficient grounds for a landlord to refuse the tenant to keep the animal.
The Act also addresses tenants’ possession of emotional support animals. Emotional support animals are animals that provide emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship but that are not trained to perform tasks for the benefit of persons with disabilities. Essentially, the rules described above for service animals apply equally to emotional support animals. However, the tenant may be required to provide documentation from a licensed health professional evidencing the need for the animal. Furthermore, a misrepresentation by the tenant or a licensed health professional with respect to the need for the animal carries a minimum $500 fine.
The Act places constraints on municipalities to institute programs requiring inspections of rental units or rental properties. While municipal inspection programs are allowed, they are generally limited to blighted areas, or areas with decreasing property values, high rates of building code violations, or where conversions from single-family homes to rental properties have increased. If a property is inspected under a municipal program, and the inspection revealed either no habitability violations or, if a habitability violation was discovered and the violation was cured within thirty days following the inspection, the municipality may not conduct another inspection of that property for at least the next five years under the program. If a habitability violation is discovered during an inspection and it is not cured within the thirty days following the inspection, that property may be subject to annual inspections under the program. Notably, any rental property that is less than eight years old may not be inspected under a municipal inspection program.
The Act also streamlines the process by which landlords may evict tenants by deregulating the process by which a landlord provides a notice of eviction. Specifically, under new rules promulgated by the Act, a court cannot require that a summons and complaint filed by a landlord in an eviction action be notarized. In addition, the Act places more onerous requirements on tenants in eviction proceedings, while reducing those placed on landlords. To contest an eviction action, a tenant must raise “valid legal grounds” at an initial eviction hearing, as opposed to previous requirements which merely allowed the tenant to claim that a contest exists. If the tenant cannot claim “valid legal grounds” for the contest, the landlord would have the right to proceed with the eviction.
With respect to a landlord’s initial notice of eviction, the Act provides that an incorrect statement on the notice of the amount of unpaid back rent will not automatically invalidate the notice. However, certain exceptions to that rule exist. A notice containing an incorrect statement of unpaid rent will still be invalid if the landlord intentionally lists an incorrect statement of unpaid rent, or if the tenant has already paid the amount the tenant believes is actually due. This modification is noteworthy, as previously, an incorrect statement of unpaid rent was sufficient grounds to invalidate the notice in an eviction hearing.
The Act provides landlords a simplified eviction process and tools to ensure tenants are complying with lease covenants. Axley maintains a robust landlord/tenant practice and is equipped to aid in eviction actions, leasing matters, and landlord/tenant compliance issues. If you have a question about your rights as a landlord or tenant under the ever-changing legal landscape affecting landlord/tenant law, Axley is here to help.