Many landlords have lamented the influx of accommodation requests based upon assistance animal certifications obtained on the internet. Landlords often fear that any attempt to verify the basis for such accommodation requests will place landlords at risk of a fair housing claim.
In March 2017, the Virginia Fair Housing Board (“Board”) issued guidance to help landlords when analyzing accommodation requests from tenants seeking the assistance of animals. This guidance addresses concerns that landlords have regarding documentation from an internet source certifying an animal as an assistance animal.
In these situations, a landlord’s focus should be on verifying the credibility of the specific certifying source, rather than focusing “on the nature or severity” of the disability or limiting the types of sources qualified to issue such certifications. When a landlord receives an accommodation request for an assistance animal with an internet certification or otherwise formulaic documentation from an out-of-state practitioner, the landlord can and should verify that the practitioner is “licensed or certified by both the other state’s applicable regulatory body as well as the jurisdiction where the person with a disability was located at the time services were provided (presumably, in most cases, Virginia).”
Landlords should also remember that under federal and state fair housing laws, assistance animals include both animals trained to perform disability-related tasks for a disabled individual (a service animal) and untrained animals that provide disability-related emotional support to a disabled individual (an emotional support animal).
Additionally, a landlord should remember the following best practice tips regarding accommodation requests for assistance animals, which the Board’s guidance also addresses:
- The assistance from the animal should be related to the disability
- Formal animal training or certification is not required
- Landlords should avoid requiring “medical records or details concerning the nature or severity of the [tenant’s] disability”
- Landlords should keep documentation related to the tenant’s request confidential
- Assistance animals are not “pets” and thus pet fees or deposits should not be assessed to a tenant with an assistance animal.
As with any reasonable accommodation or modification request, landlords should seek the advice of an attorney as soon as possible to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local fair housing laws.
You may access the full publication adopted by the Virginia Fair Housing Board on March 1, 2017 CLICK HERE
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