Property Management Q & A, Autumn 2018

QUESTION:

It seems that there are more and tenants requesting to have a service animal. In fact, more and more of the verifications we are receiving seem to be from online “letter mills.” What recourse do we have when we receive one of these letters?

ANSWER:

First, let’s acknowledge that for some (and perhaps many) tenants, service animals are a reasonable accommodation and entirely appropriate to allow them to live their lives.  That being said, I agree with you that more and more tenants seem aware of the fact that a “service animal” gives them a way around landlords’ pet and breed restrictions, as well as additional deposit or “pet rent” fees.  Certainly, in arenas other than rental housing, I can tell you that I am seeing more people accompanied by animals in their daily lives.  

For example, I have maintained my office in the same downtown Seattle office building for about 15 years.  Up until about two years ago, I had never seen animals in the building lobby or elevator.  Now, I see animals just about every day.  Many of these are not necessarily service animals, it is just that offices seem to have become more “pet friendly.”  I was flying on an airplane two weeks ago, and there was a guy in the row ahead of me in first class with some sort of bulldog type animal. The good news was that it was well trained, stayed at his feet the entire trip and you would not have known the animal was there, unless you were sitting next to him. 

The reality of course is that different laws govern public accommodations such as stores and restaurants, as compared to rental housing.  While our old friend the internet can help guide us to good information, it can also lead you into a bad situation. A few years ago, one of my larger clients followed some (unfortunately inappropriate) online advice in developing their service animal policy. Not only did they get hit with a fair housing complaint, but part of the settlement involved both adopting a legally correct policy and putting their hundreds of managers through training on that policy (they had to rent a hotel ballroom for the company-wide training class).

Getting back to your question, I am familiar with these online companies. Some take different tacks, like providing “certifications” or “proof of training” that a particular animal is a service animal. They sell anything from harnesses, leashes, badges, to ID cards to “prove” that an animal is a service animal. The truth is that there is no single certification or document that can demonstrate that an animal provides a service for a person with disabilities.

Others take a different approach, and provide an online portal through which the “patient” answers some online questions, and the company generates a letter signed by a licensed medical care provider (could be a therapist, MD or other person).  These companies sell letters for a nominal amount.  I decided to try one of them out and went online with mooshme.com.  They seem pretty blatant in advertising their approach, in their home page which reads:

Your pet brings joy and comfort into your life. Take them with you everywhere you go by certifying your best friend as an emotional support animal (ESA). The process is easy and can be done from the comfort of your own home.

I opened an account, but never completed the intake form (since I didn’t want to lie about a medical or mental condition that I don’t in fact have). That hasn’t stopped mooshme from sending me quite a few follow-up emails asking why I didn’t complete the form, informing me how quick and easy it is for me to get my certification, and (guess what) offering to lower the price for my letter.  

I ran this by a good friend, who works at the Seattle Office of Civil Rights Enforcement, and he replied, “I agree that housing providers should consider all sources and determine whether the site that is certifying the use of a service animal has sufficient information about the person’s disability and disability related need for the service animal. It would require that the site have some level of knowledge about the person’s disability in order to make an assessment and training to make the assessment.  The housing provider may ask the requestor and/or site for additional information if the disability related need is not clear as part of the interactive process short of disclosing the person’s disability.“

So, when you receive a letter that seems to be from a “letter mill,” you do have the option of inquiring further as to whether the person writing the letter has some level of actual knowledge of the patient and some basis to make a diagnosis and recommendation.  

I have reviewed a few of these letters and regularly push back and request more information.  I ask the person drafting the letter to clarify their field of practice, and probe the details of their opinions. This is tricky, because you can’t request information on the actual condition that tenant/applicant suffers from.  But, at least you don’t have to blindly accept such letters without some critical thought.  

Christopher T. Benis is an attorney with Harrison-Benis, LLP with offices in Seattle. The information contained herein is not legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with your attorney before relying on anything contained herein.



 

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