The issue of online medical verifications for emotional support animals (ESA’s) is an ongoing problem for professional apartment management. As written in this space before, we want to approve all legitimate reasonable accommodation requests for our residents who need assistance animals. The key, of course, is “legitimate” – and that is the issue. I now have a number of different clients all working to review and evaluate ESA requests to determine, as best they can, if the medical verifications are legitimate. A quick internet search will reveal this is a lucrative industry and just about anyone can get an ESA letter by answering a few quick questions and using your credit card. Indeed, when investigative reporters look into online ESA’s, they routinely get verifications for goats and ducks as soon as they use a credit card. And when management pushes back in an effort to determine if the ESA verification is legitimate, we get back a form letter in return asserting retaliation under the Fair Housing Act.  We are not retaliating.  We just want the verification to be legitimate.

While I am unaware of the federal government acting to stop this abuse, the state legislatures in Colorado and Florida have now criminalized fraudulent claims of disability. These new state laws are certainly an important first step, but they are going to be hard to enforce. Now, I am aware of a Department of Housing & Urban Development settlement agreement in which it is made clear that for mental health and/or mental disabilities, the medical verification standard should be set higher and that verification is to be signed by a “medical provider, health or social service professional.”

These are but initial efforts at controlling a problem which is continuing to trouble apartment management. Again, fraudulent reasonable accommodation requests (and fraudulent medical verifications) do a disservice to those Americans (including our veterans) who are truly disabled and who rely on animals. Look, if you have a pet – just pay the pet fee. Most apartment communities are animal friendly these days and will welcome Rover or Fluffy.

Just A Thought.

 

As written in this space (and elsewhere) all too frequently, professional apartment owners and managers have seen a significant surge in the number of reasonable accommodation requests by residents with animals. Some of these requests are legitimate and we are happy to approve them. An increasing percentage of these requests, however, appear to be questionable at best and reflect an effort to avoid otherwise legitimate pet rent/fees. As a part of the review and evaluation process, here are some definitions that, I hope, will help leasing offices as we engage in the interactive process with our residents/applicants:

A ”service animal” is defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a dog that is specifically trained to performs tasks for its owner with a disability. Think of a dog that assists someone with a vision disability cross the street. For the most part, the ADA does not apply to residential apartment communities. The exception is that the ADA does apply to the leasing office for the property.

An “assistance animal” is defined under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as an animal that works, provides assistance or emotional support that alleviates one of more symptoms of a person’s disability. An “assistance animal” does not require any training. Think of a dog that soothes or comforts an individual with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also, while dogs are the most common assistance animal, the law recognizes that many other types of animals can qualify – such as cats, ponies, ferrets, and/or even snakes. This list is not exhaustive and I am not making this up.

An ”emotional support animal” is a subset of assistance animals. These animals also provide emotional support to individuals with disabilities. Emotional support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, as well as can help with depression and anxiety. Unlike a “service animal,” an “emotional support animal” does not require any special training.

A “companion animal” is another way to describe an “emotional support animal.” The terms “companion animals” and “emotional support animals” are used interchangeably.

Accordingly, if you see what purports to be a medical verification for a “service animal” to help with anxiety or depression (or a letter that references the ADA for a companion animal), you might want to take a closer look to determine if indeed the verification is legitimate.

Also, remember that if an animal is approved as either a service animal or as an emotional support animal, that animal is permitted to accompany the resident anywhere within the community (except, for example, in the swimming pool or in the hot tub).

Just A Thought.

 

A couple of interesting emotional support animal medical verification questions have hit my desk over the past month. First, recall that case law on the issue of permissible credentials of a medical or health care professional is a bit unclear. Individuals who are licensed by a public regulatory authority (such as a state) to provide medical care, therapy or counseling to persons with disabilities certainly qualify. This includes, of course, medical doctors, physician assistants, psychiatrists, psychologists, and many social workers. Guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) notes that a peer support group or even a non-medical service agency may also provide verifications in appropriate circumstances. As has been written in this space, however, many professional apartment management companies are pushing back against medical verifications that appear to have been simply purchased over the internet without any legitimate medical evaluation or analysis. Those are easier.

But what happens when, for example, a licensed chiropractor from California purports to verify an emotional support animal with a diagnosis of depression for an applicant who lives in Florida? Or when one counselor writes the exact same letter for 12 residents at the same property? Sorry to say there is no cookie cutter response. We do an individualized evaluation of the letters to make a determine (as best we can) if the medical verifications are legitimate within the bounds of what the law permits management to ask. Many times the letters have other defects which permits us to seek further clarification to determine if the verifications are legitimate.

The bottom line is that unless and until DOJ/HUD or the courts give us more guidance, management will continue to review, evaluate, and respond as best we can. That being written, it seems to me to make sense to require that someone have a credential for an area related to that for which he/she purports to give the certification.  And that an individual professionally trained in a health care field actually evaluate the resident to confirm a legitimate disability and need for an emotional support animal.

Just A Thought.

A legitimate question from leasing office professionals I get from time to time is: “We approved an emotional support animal for a resident two years ago. Does that approval continue indefinitely or can we seek a supplemental medical verification from time to time?” My answer is that there are any number of disabilities for which we grant a reasonable accommodation but for which medicine, treatment, surgery, or even the passage of time can have cured or helped cure such that the condition no longer qualifies as a disability. To that end, it appears reasonable for management to seek a supplemental medical verification for a disability that is not obvious. Do I think you should do this every three months? Certainly not. But there is a legitimate argument to seek a supplement every couple of years or perhaps even at lease renewal time. The point is not to improperly pry into any resident’s medical history, but as we are in an era of, shall we say, questionable medical verifications for certain emotional support animals (yes, I am talking about those simply purchased over the internet with a few computer clicks and a credit card without any legitimate medical evaluation or diagnosis), doing our best to comply with applicable law only makes sense. In addressing this specific issue, one federal judge wrote “[n]o provision in the [Fair Housing Act] purports to make a granted accommodation eternal.”

Might you get some pushback? Yes, but hopefully not from your residents with legitimate disabilities. Indeed, I suspect individuals with real disabilities are disheartened by those attempting to game the system as it does a disservice to those who actually need emotional support animals.

That being said, of course, there are certain obvious disabilities for which management most likely would never need a supplemental verification. Such as if a resident is blind or if a resident uses a wheelchair.

This is a challenging area and one for which management should continually attempt to get it right.

Just A Thought.

In this era of an ever-increasing number of service and/or emotional support animal requests received by professional apartment leasing offices, three of my clients have faced the same issue recently. Here is a common fact pattern: our resident submits a request for an emotional support animal. That request has a medical verification letter or certificate attesting that Rover or Fluffy is “certified” as an assistance animal. Upon review, however, it seems pretty clear that the medical verification was simply purchased over the internet and did not involve any analysis concerning the disability of the resident nor any nexus (link) between the disability and the animal. Management sends a letter noting carefully that while we will absolutely continue to engage with the resident concerning the accommodation request, based on the materials submitted, we cannot approve the animal. What happens next is typically one of three paths: (a) the resident recognizes he/she does not actually need a service animal and drops the request; (b) the resident goes to a health care professional and gets the appropriate diagnosis and letter; or (c) the resident gets angry (sometimes getting a lawyer involved) and declares the leasing office is violating HIPPA (the health care information privacy law) by seeking detailed medical records. And then I get called.

So there is no misunderstanding on this point, management does not seek medical records for our disabled residents. We are not attempting to obtain confidential health care information. We are, however, attempting to just confirm that the resident is actually disabled, that the request is necessary, and related to the disability. Buying a purported verification letter off a web site from a company or individual who promises to “certify” the animal does not meet the test.  Coincidently, as I was writing this post, another client sent me records that a therapist sent to the leasing office about a resident along with the verification form. We had not, of course, requested the records. They will be returned.

Again, we do not want medical records. I don’t want my clients to violate HIPPA.  But I do want residents to appropriately certify their service or emotional support animal requests when their disability is not obvious.

Just A Thought.

A Fair Housing Defense reader sent in a question about emotional support animal medical verifications that I want to address. Because our industry has seen such an increase in the number of service and/or emotional support animal reasonable accommodation requests, my reader wanted to know if one way to curb potential abuse of the medical verification process might be to require health care providers to have the verification notarized.

As a lawyer for the management company/apartment owner, I am all for coming up with any solution which could help ensure that service and emotional support animals are appropriately permitted for our residents with a legitimate disability while finding a way to reject reasonable accommodation requests that come from residents who are not disabled and who simply wish to avoid pet rent or pet fees. As I have written in this space before, many of my clients are now pushing back against medical verifications that are purchased over the internet with a credit card following no legitimate medical evaluation.

That being said, I have not seen any case or guidance which would permit management to mandate that medical verifications be notarized. The Fair Housing Act and health care privacy laws limit what management can collect from our residents. Now, you could certainly request the verification be notarized (and/or have space for a notary on your reasonable accommodation form). It is possible that some medical professionals would indeed have the form (or their letter) notarized. But if a resident objected to the requirement for a notarized signature (and management denied the request solely because the medical verification lacked a notary) and filed a complaint, while I would absolutely do my best to defend the complaint, I am not sure we could mandate the notary requirement under current law. An interesting idea. But I think a best practice is to continue to review and evaluate all medical verifications to do our best to ensure it was not obtained from a less than legitimate source.

Hope that helps. Just A Thought.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a press release concerning a new case HUD charged in Oklahoma. Specifically, HUD alleged that the landlords of a rental property violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by rejecting the emotional support animal request submitted with a veteran with disabilities. As I have written many times, responding to reasonable accommodation requests from disabled residents is a critical part of apartment (or in this case, rental home) management. As far as I can tell, this is the first complaint brought by HUD since the new administration took over last month.

Here, it is claimed that a combat veteran with a mental disability, and who has an emotional support animal, submitted a request for a reasonable accommodation. As a part of the accommodation request, the resident also submitted a medical verification for the animal. The complaint asserts that the landlord refused to waive the otherwise due and payable $250 pet fee. Under applicable law, of course, service and/or emotional support animals are not pets and those fees are to be waived as a reasonable accommodation in order to permit the disabled resident to fully enjoy his or her home.

Now, always remember there are two sides to every story and I am making no judgment on the merits here. Also, I have not seen if the medical verification was likely legitimate (as contrasted to something simply purchased over the internet with a credit card). Nevertheless, recall that disability remains the most common basis of fair housing complaint filed with HUD (and its fair housing partner groups). Indeed, in 2016, HUD and its partners reviewed just under 5,000 disability-related complaints, or more than 58 percent of all fair housing complaints. Let’s work to ensure your community is not next.

So, does that mean you have a approve every reasonable accommodation or reasonable modification request? No. But it does mean that every request needs to be evaluated and responded to.

Just A Thought.

I had three clients in three states (one near the Pacific Ocean, one in the Midwest, and one in the middle Atlantic) all reach out to me with a variation of the same question concerning service and/or companion animals: what happens if the resident is not disabled but still seeks an emotional support animal? Does management have to approve that request?

The fact pattern typically comes up when a resident or an applicant submits a reasonable accommodation request. And that accommodation request is verified by someone who writes that John Resident or Ann Applicant “would benefit from” an emotional support animal. The verification does not state that John or Ann is “disabled” and there is nothing that would otherwise make management aware that John or Ann has a disability.

In such a circumstance, management does not have to approve the emotional support animal. The whole point of service or emotional support animals is to assist our disabled residents so they can obtain the full benefits of their housing. If you do not have a disability, you do not qualify for an emotional support animal.

To be sure, I am not writing that you cannot necessarily have an animal. Indeed, our industry is turning more pet friendly these days and many properties welcome pets. And yes, we welcome your pet rent and pet fees.

Now, when I see a verification such as I have described above, my response will typically note that while we cannot approve your request at this time based on the information provided, we will, of course, review any supplemental information a resident may wish to provide.

Although I continue to see an explosion of purported medical verifications come via the internet (in which someone pays $69.99 or even more if you want a rush), please know that there is absolutely no requirement in the law that Rover or Fluffy be on some national animal registry or receive a fancy certificate. Those websites are just money makers for the people who collect the credit card payments.

Bottom line: if you are legitimately disabled and need a service or emotional support animal, have your treating medical professional write a note confirming you are disabled and there is a need (or nexus) for your animal. That’s all. Many management companies have a form you can use. But if you are just trying to game the system and get a verification over the internet in an effort to avoid pet rent or pet fees, don’t be surprised if management pushes back. Make sense?

Just A Thought.

A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a new Fair Housing Act (FHA) lawsuit against the owner, builder, and designer of a housing complex near Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. In the complaint, the DOJ asserts that the apartment-style homes were constructed without complying with the FHA’s accessibility requirements. The lawsuit states that each of three buildings on the property have nine individually keyed units with their own bathroom and desk as well as a shared living space, a communal kitchen, and two communal laundry rooms.

The specific barriers claimed by the DOJ include: inaccessible building entrances on an inaccessible exterior route, inaccessible knob hardware throughout (including on the building entrances and unit entrances), inaccessible electrical outlets, inaccessible laundry facilities, inaccessible bathrooms, and inaccessible walk-in closet entrances.

As always, I am mindful there are two sides to every case. DOJ made the claims following a complaint filed by a local fair housing group in Washington state after an administrative complaint was brought before the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. Two takeaways here: (a) DOJ will attempt to hold everyone involved in a project accountable if perceived FHA violation exists; and (b) the law contains a number of safe harbors and guidance to help owners, designers, and builders ensure new constructions meets the accessibility criteria.  Make sure your builder/designer/owner is familiar with ensuring a building is considered accessible or find someone who is before your project gets started.  Or you might really need to speak with a lawyer like me.

Just A Thought.

In addition to renting units, many apartment owners/managers rent space for commercial enterprises (such as restaurants and stores) in their properties. Which can make good sense for both – providing a needed service or store with a ready-made group of people living extremely close by. All good, right?

But, remember that when you lease space to a commercial vendor and that tenant modifies the space for a restaurant and/or shop – make sure that the renovated site conforms with the accessibility guidelines in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). While a landlord and a commercial tenant are certainly free to apportion costs as they see fit (including an indemnification clause) – if a disabled individual sues, both the landlord and commercial tenant will be named as defendants and the plaintiff will seek what is known as joint and several liability against them.  An otherwise responsible party will most likely not be able to avoid liability to a plaintiff by simply pointing out that the other party (landlord or tenant) agreed to ensure the space met the accessibility guidelines.  Yes, there will be a cross claim, but that will not get you out of the lawsuit.  The reason for this policy is that it is presumed to be unfair to the disabled individual not to be able to sue a party who should otherwise be responsible for the failure to comply with the ADA.

What this means for property owners/managers is that if we rent space (and even if the cost of the renovation is agreed to be picked up by the tenant), we are still potentially responsible to ensure that the accessibility requirements are complied with. Another reason you might want to speak with a lawyer like me if you start down the path of renting commercial space in your property.

Just A Thought.