Pet Policy Gone Wild

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New “assistance animals” regulations proposed by the Fair Employment and Housing Council (FEHC) will likely cause heartburn in the rental housing community. The attempt to bring clarity in the murky area of service and support animal needs versus fraud is fraught with ambiguity. It is understandable why rental property owners are confused about the law, existing and proposed. Unless you’re a lawyer who regularly studies these issues, it is hard to know where one assistance animal law begins and another one ends. When does “reasonable accommodation” become unreasonable? Ultimately, rental property owners are scared of being sued and, therefore, often choose to allow support animals onto their property, even when they suspect fraud is being perpetrated on them.

But owners have very important, reasonable and necessary reasons for having a no-pets policy. Animals can be dangerous, spread disease, interfere with the quiet enjoyment of others, and damage property. An owner’s right to keep animals off a property, unless to accommodate a person with a real need, therefore, must be protected. Unfortunately, current laws, including future laws under this Proposal, fail to protect owners from those fraudulently gaining access for their animals to rental properties.

Rental housing owners and managers support and understand the need for providing reasonable accommodations to those who legitimately need an emotional support animal, as these animals (or “comfort animals”) can provide a therapeutic benefit to those with a mental or psychiatric disability.

We also recognize that service and support animal fraud is rampant and easily perpetrated under our current laws and regulations. More and more individuals are pretending their pets are legitimate service or emotional support animals when, in fact, the person has no legitimate need for the animal or the animal itself is not legitimately a service or support animal. Ultimately, that is the main concern we have expressed in regard to FEHC’s Proposal: the proposed regulations do little to protect rental property owners from fraudulent requests for support animals.

Support and service animal fraud is widespread in our society. Fake assistance animals are everywhere. Multiple news reports suggest that it is more than a few bad apples that are perpetrating the fraud. Rental property owners should not be forced to accommodate people who are perpetrating fraud on them, nor should laws and regulations facilitate such fraud. Unfortunately, this Proposal does just that, because it contains few, if any, effective anti-abuse mechanisms to prevent people from gaming the system.

People requesting a reasonable accommodation for a support animal should have a legitimate disability that requires them to have a support animal. They should have a real diagnosis and prescription for a support animal by a real medical or mental health professional with expertise to give an opinion about the disability at issue and the need for a service or support animal. The disability diagnosis and need for a support animal should also be current. Any one with a real disability and a real need for a sup port animal should have this kind of documentation. Without these standards, there are no standards. Anyone could self-diagnose, tell their friends or “peer support group” they have a disability and a need for a support animal, and then use that friend or group as a source to verify their disability. Alternatively, a person who was diagnosed with a disability five years ago, and who might not currently have a disability or need for an accommodation, could use that stale prescription to game the system. We are sure that this is not the way the law is supposed to work.
We submitted, on behalf of the Association, detailed comments on the FEHC’s Assistance Animal Proposal, including a number of ways the Proposal is deficient in preventing fraud and subject to abusive conduct:

  • Diagnosis or assessment by a licensed medical or mental health professional is not required.
  • The need for a support animal is not required to be a current need.
  • The person verifying a person’s disability or need for an accommodation does not need to be a medical or mental health professional or need to have specific training or education about support animals.
  • When an owner knows about a disability but not the need for an accommodation, the owners should still be able to request reliable information describing the needed accommodation and the nexus between disability and accommodation.

A meaningful review of a requested accommodation should allow rental property owners to make reasonable requests for certain reliable documents from reliable sources that are specifically defined. The following is a list of provisions that should be contained within the regulation to prevent fraud and abuse, and to ensure that reasonable accommodations are provided to those with legitimate needs:

  • Owners should be able to require disability and need for accommodation verification documents to come from a licensed medical or mental health professional.
  • The documentation should describe the nature, severity and duration of the disability.
  • The disability, need for the accommodation, and verifying documentation should be current (i.e., not more than one year old), and on letterhead from a mental health professional.
  • The medical or mental health professionals must have expertise to give an opinion about the person’s medical condition and the need for the accommodation.
  • Owners should be able to request new verification documents if the previous “doctor’s note” was not described as permanent.
  • The person seeking the accommodation must be under the current care of the prescribing medical or mental health professional.
  • Verification from a “letter mill” should be prohibited entirely.

Our comment letter to FEHC on assistive animals high lighted all the ways in which the Proposal represents an unbalanced approach to addressing the issue of assistive animals in rental housing. We discussed the failure of the Proposal to consider the quiet enjoyment of other tenants, nuisance issues, the safety and health of other tenants, pet fraud, and the need for rental housing providers to be able to establish reasonable rules for tenants who are provided a reasonable accommodation. In short, the needs of property owners and other tenants are not properly accounted for or taken into consideration, and the Proposal should be amended to better reflect the realities of landlord tenant relationships and the respective needs of each group.

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