Apartment Living BlogFair Housing › Fair Housing Expert: How to Verify Requests for Assistance Animals

Terry Kitay, founding Director of The Fair Housing Institute, Inc.

 

Dear Fair Housing Expert,

 

In the past year, I’ve had a few requests to accommodate residents’ assistance animals. I haven’t had the heart to ask for medical documentation – especially in situations where the disability is not obvious. Can you clarify the regulations around who, and under what circumstances, these requests should be accommodated and how to coordinate the verification process?

 

-Overaccommodating in Memphis

 

Dear Overaccommodating,

 

Your concerns are right on trend as requests for assistance animals have become among the most common requests for reasonable accommodations in multifamily housing. The Fair Housing Act obligates a housing provider to provide an accommodation, meaning a change in “rules, policies, practices and procedures,” if the requested change is necessary to allow a person with a disability to make full use and enjoyment of that person’s housing. Similarly, most housing providers have no problem allowing access to a dog that guides a person with a vision impairment, or fetches items for a person with a mobility impairment. But, like you said, it can be tricky when the presence of a disability is not obvious and the relation between the disability and the need for the animal is not clear. If either of these facts are not readily observable, a housing provider has the right to request third party verification of the existence of a disability, and/or the disability-related need for the requested accommodation.

 

 

How to Request Verification of a Disability

If verification is appropriate, you can request that a third party do the following:

 

  • Certify that the person making the request for an accommodation has a disability, as defined by the Fair Housing Act.

 

  • Describe the accommodation that is needed.

 

  • Show the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the accommodation.

 

Assistance Animal Verification Form

Ideally, the verification form should include questions that require yes or no answers. This ensures you’re not getting more information than you’re entitled to, including confidential information about the nature of the disability itself. The basic questions for the form should include:

 

  • Is this person disabled as defined by the Fair Housing Act? (Reference the Fair Housing Act definition of disability, namely, a mental or physical impairment that substantially impairs one or more major life activities.)

 

  • Does this person need an accommodation because of that disability?

 

  • Include a release on the form to be signed by the person requesting the accommodation, so that the verifier has no privacy concerns about completing the form.  

 

  • Add a statement that the verifier should not share any medical diagnosis or medical records for the person requesting the verification, as this is confidential information that compromises their privacy.

 

Send the verification form with the signed release directly to the verifier and have the verifier return the form directly to you.

 

Confirm that the Verifier is an Appropriate Source

The verifier need not be a medical doctor (M.D.), but must be a third party, credible professional familiar with the disability. The verifier’s qualification to provide the requested verification is most often suspect when the requester produces a letter, or prescription, for an assistance animal. While this document may appear to provide the required information, it may be the product of an unverified, online self-assessment that diagnoses chronic stress, anxiety, depression, or other disabilities requiring reasonable accommodations including assistance animals.

 

If you have objective reasons to believe that the verifier has no therapeutic or professional relationship with the requester for any reason other than to provide a prescription for an assistance animal, you may follow up with the verifier for additional information. Legitimate follow-up questions could include:

 

  • Do you have a therapeutic relationship with this person for purposes other than providing the verification?

 

  • What do multiple animals do that one animal can’t do?

 

  • Are you aware that this person already has another animal living in the household as a pet?

 

  • Are you aware that the emotional support animal requested by this person is a Burmese python?

 

Although these kinds of follow-up questions are acceptable, never inquire as to the nature of the disability or the severity or symptoms of the disability. And, remember that if the existence of the disability is in doubt, there is no obligation to accommodate, since these kinds of changes to rules, policies, practices and procedures are limited solely to people with disabilities who need them because of the disability.

Terry Kitay

About

Working as Theresa L. Kitay, Attorney at Law, Terry Kitay has provided general consultation and defense representation on civil rights issues in the real estate industry for nearly 30 years. Since leaving HUD’s Office of Counsel, Terry has continued to practice law exclusively in the fields of fair housing and accessibility. Located in Oak Island, North Carolina, she represents owners, developers, managers, housing authorities, non-profit providers, architects, and engineers throughout the country. Terry is also a founding Director of The Fair Housing Institute, Inc., an educational resource providing live and online training to the multifamily housing industry on all civil rights issues.

Comments

  1. Is there a website or tool that helps with getting verification of disability and need for a pet?

  2. Susan Weston says:

    Terry, you are always the best at giving practical, actionable advice to our industry. So glad you and the Institute have our backs!

  3. Tammy Wittig says:

    Terry, does this same kind of verification work for an emotional support animal? It seems like residents are not wanting to pay the pet fee or follow the pet guidelines (weight and breed) so they say it is an emotional support animal and bring in a doctors note saying that they need one.

    • Terry Kitay Terry Kitay says:

      The same verification is applicable to any request for an accommodation to a disability. A request for an emotional support animal is just one other type of accommodation, equivalent to assigned parking or providing notices via phone rather than on paper for someone who has a visual impairment.

  4. Pat Stafford says:

    Terry,
    I thought there is a difference between an assistance animal and a companion animal. Assistance animals have to actually be trained and be certified to help with a life function. I have people bringing in on-line certifications the pet is an assistance animal when they mean its a companion animal. Can you clarify this topic a bit further?

  5. Just to echo Tammy’s comment, we’re getting applicant’s coming in with “Emotional Support Animal Certifications” that claim to verify an animal is an ESA, but I’ve heard people can just pay a few bucks to get one online – there’s no actual training or certification course for the animal. All ESA requests we’ve gotten are dogs that wouldn’t be permitted under weight and breed guidelines in our pet policy.

  6. Debbie Scott says:

    I have the same situation and question. I manage a community that has a large pet population and more & more people are claiming their pet is an emotional support animal & they’ve registered them online as such. Do the same laws apply to emotional support animals as for service animals? Is an online registration considered a third party verification? Are we still obligated to waive pet fees & pet rent?

  7. Note that requests for emotional support animals are just one kind of request for an accommodation to a disability – and they should be treated the same way you would treat any other request for accommodation to a disability, such as exclusive use parking spaces orF email notifications for residents with hearing impairments. So the verification process described is appropriate for any accommodation request IF VERIFICATION IS APPROPRIATE. Note that an ESA is one kind of an assistance animal. An assistance animal is any animal needed because of a disability – it can be a “service” animal, an emotional support animal, a therapy animal, a companion animal, and lots of other names. A service animal, however, is specifically defined as an animal who is trained to perform a task, or work, for a person with a disability. None of the other categories of assistance animals will necessarily have that kind of training, but they may still be appropriate accommodations under the FHA. Only service animals are permitted as an accommodation under the ADA, which means you can only bring your SERVICE dog to a restaurant – not your emotional support dog.

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