Emotional Support Animals
NOTE: I am not an attorney. Be sure to consult an attorney before creating a policy for your office or rental to ensure you are in compliance with the law.
Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are animals "prescribed" to an individual suffering from an emotional disability such as stress, anxiety, depression, mourning, etc. The ESA does not have to be specially trained, certified, or registered. In other words, any off-the-shelf animal may be considered an ESA. I've seen dogs, cats, ducks, turkeys, llamas, and even snakes.
As far as housing is concerned, a Landlord or Property Manager cannot discriminate against an applicant or tenant with an ESA because they are protected under Fair Housing Law (Fair Housing Law is not the same as Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that requires animals to be specially trained and that covers public spaces). Fair Housing Law sees emotional support animals the same way it sees a wheelchair; they are tools designed to enable someone to participate in life despite a disability. If a Landlord has a no-pet policy in a rental, they cannot discriminate against someone with an ESA. They cannot charge pet rent or a pet deposit. They have to treat the animal as if it were a medical device designed to assist with a disability.
ESA Certificates and ID Cards
Fraud is rampant throughout the country and only getting worse as more and more people learn about ESAs. There are now web sites that will prescribe an ESA for $100 without ever seeing the individual, verifying an illness/disability, or determining that an ESA will provide a service. These web sites print certificates that claim to designate a pet as an ESA but they have no legal authority or qualifications to make these claims. They also sell ID cards, vets, and other items designed to look official and confuse the uninformed.
This is a growing problem with the airlines, as well. If you travel, you probably see passengers with animals in small carriers. There are people that claim their anxiety makes it impossible to travel unless they have their animal with them. Their doctor writes a note and suddenly that individual can travel with their pet - without paying any additional fees - while the rest of us have to pay outrageous fees for our pet to sit in crates with the luggage.
What should a Landlord do?
First, you have to know the law. HUD provides plenty of guidance on this. While Landlords cannot discriminate, we can ask certain questions or require certain evidence to weed out fraud. Here are some examples:
- Never allow more than one service animal. I once had an applicant that claimed to have four emotional support cats. Even ADA says no more than one animal can be prescribed for a disability. The exception is if one animal is being trained to replace an animal.
- Landlords are allowed to ask if the person has a disability and what service the animal provides that alleviates the symptoms of that disability.
- Always request current documentation. Many applicants show up with a certificate they purchased online. I do not believe a doctor can diagnose a mental illness or prescribe a treatment (in this case an ESA) without actually seeing the patient more than once and then following up with them. I am willing to stand before a judge on this one! I require the applicant to bring me a letter from the prescribing party to confirm they are an actual patient and that the service animal is necessary. 90% of all applicants never come back with the form.
- Just because someone is authorized a service animal does not mean the animal does not have to behave. If it barks, acts aggressively, damages the property, or is not controlled and cleaned up after, it may result in an eviction.
There's much more to it than this. Be sure to check out HUD guidelines or speak with your attorney before developing a service animal policy. Even better: hire a professional property manager that knows the law and can protect you and your property from those that will twist the law and take advantage of you!