Apartment owners and managers are familiar with the internet industry providing junk disability letters for pet owners. You only have to go to the web to find a dozen or more places that will sell a letter from some kind of alleged therapist certifying that you are disabled and your pet cat, koala or kangaroo is a necessary emotional support animal. Many owners and managers feel helpless when confronted by these letters. After all, organizations like the National Apartment Association warn owners and managers:
- “do not ask for details about the resident’s disability” and
- “documentation is sufficient if it establishes that an individual has a disability and that the animal in question will provide some type of disability-related assistance or emotional support.”
These organizations agree that you can verify the authenticity of the letter and signature on a third party letter, but say that you “may not ask for additional information about the disability.”*
We think this advice is wrong. You can fight back against bogus requests for Emotional Support Animals. We will be presenting a free webinar with all the details at noon Central Standard Time on April 15, 2016 and at noon Central Standard Time on April 20, 2016.
In the meantime, here are the basics of why the conventional wisdom is wrong.
First, HUD specifically recognizes that apartment owners and managers are entitled to “reliable documentation” when the disability and need are not apparent. A typical letter from an internet vendor is not reliable on its face because the diagnostic tools used by these vendors do not appear to conform to acceptable medical practice. Nothing in the Fair Housing Act requires that apartment owners and managers grant reasonable accommodations based on letters that have no scientific or medical support.
Second, part of making sure a letter is reliable is confirming not only that it is authentic, but that the author is qualified to make the diagnosis of disability. A string of letters after someone’s name does not mean they are qualified to determine if someone is mentally ill. We don’t let podiatrists diagnose heart disease, and there is no reason to think a marriage and family counselor is qualified to diagnose acute anxiety disorder. Given the already dubious nature of these internet businesses demanding credentials is only reasonable.
Third, you are entitled to ask about the nature of a non-obvious disability because you cannot evaluate a request for reasonable accommodation unless you know what the disability is and how it relates to the particular accommodation requested. As one court says, a request for reasonable accommodation cannot be analyzed except by “by examining the facts and circumstances surrounding [the tenant’s] particular impairment.” (emphasis added). A letter that merely says the tenant has a “mental impairment” is not sufficient because for some mental impairments there is no reason to think an ESA is needed for their use and enjoyment of the apartment they rent.
Finally, you are entitled to know whether the tenant or resident meets the statutory definition of disability. Courts have recognized that not all mental impairments are disabling, and there is no single statutory or medical definition of “handicap” or “disability.” The fact that a letter says the tenant is “disabled” or “handicapped” is not enough to evaluate a reasonable accommodation request because you can’t tell what definition the doctor or therapist used. It it is reasonable to ask that the doctor or therapist certify that the patient meets the statutory definition of handicap under the Fair Housing Act.
Exploitation of the disabilities laws shows a lack of character, but being morally handicapped is not protected by the Fair Housing Act. We don’t believe Congress or HUD intended to create an industry based on shoddy medical practices, and while there are important limits on what you can do, we think in most cases apartment owners and managers can fight junk ESA letters.** Sign up for our webinar on April 15 and April 20 to find out how.
* These quotes are taken from the NAA Emotional Support Animal Toolkit, but I should make it clear that these represent the conventional wisdom found in materials from many Fair Housing Act trainers and lawyers who practice in the field. They represent a cautious approach that makes sense for good faith requests for accommodation, but not for obviously purchased letters.
** Naturally, every individual situation is different, and you should always consult an attorney or well designed policy and procedure before responding to or refusing a reasonable accommodation request, no matter how dubious it appears. Always remember that suspicion justifies asking questions; it does not justify an outright refusal to accommodate.
Special thanks to Professor Jeffrey N. Younggren of the University of Missouri, who advised me on medical issues in this blog, and to Cassie Bonness, co-author with Professor Younggren of a soon to be published paper on the standards of practice for psychologists and therapists asked to provide ESA letters.