This week’s news is a year old, but very important for apartment owners and managers confronted by the increasing flood of fake emotional support animal requests.* In March of 2017 the Virginia Fair Housing Board, which carries out Virginia’s mandate for disability rights in housing, issued a formal guidance on what constitutes reliable evidence of a disability and a disability related need for an emotional support animal. You can download the guidance here, but here are the highlights. They are based on the Board’s position that reliable evidence of a disability can only come from someone who has a therapeutic relationship with the tenant.
- A letter from a therapist or psychologist is probably not reliable unless the therapist or psychologist is licensed in the state where the prospective tenant lives. This is because a therapeutic relationship ordinarily requires a license in the state where the tenant lives. This eliminates almost all internet purchased letters, for it is rare that the person selling the letter will have bothered to be licensed in all the states of the people they sell letters to.**
- You can ask general questions about the nature of the therapeutic relationship, including where it took place and how many sessions were involved in the preceding year. Even local therapists selling fake ESA letters are unlikely to have seen the tenant more than once or twice, and it is reasonable to argue that a couple of sessions cannot constitute a therapeutic relationship.
- You can ask whether the provider is trained in any field or specialty related to disabilities in general or the particular impairment cited. This means you have a right to be skeptical when someone like a registered family therapist diagnosis PTSD or depression. This doesn’t mean you can always reject a letter outright, but it may make the location and duration of the therapeutic relationship more important.
The Guidance is clear that these are not hard and fast rules. In some cases members of a peer support group may be able to provide reliable evidence, although the Guidance excludes such groups if they charge a fee, presumably because anyone charging for mental health services should be licensed.
Some parts of the Guidance may not apply in every state. Virginia law, for example, requires some kind of certification for out-of-state medical providers. Other states may not, in which case the lack of such certification isn’t good evidence. The real key to defeating bogus ESA claims rests with the idea of a “therapeutic relationship” and the requirement that such a relationship have had a meaningful duration. Whether the disability verification comes from a therapist, physician or peer support group it isn’t likely to be reliable if based on only one or two visits, and that will knock out almost every fake provider of ESA letters.
** You must, of course, take into account where the tenant is moving from. A therapist in the tenant’s old home town can certainly be legitimate even if not locally licensed.