February 21, 2017
As a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out, for any number of reasons, both legitimate and otherwise, we have seen a proliferation of service and assistance animals. From miniature horses as therapy animals to small dogs carried by airline passengers, to the more common seeing eye dog, Americans are ever more empowered to assert their entitlement to service and assistance animals.
Landlords are reporting questionable claims of disability that they suspect are aimed at getting around no pet clauses and pet deposits in leases. What is a landlord to do in the face of a suspicious claim of disability?
As part of the effort to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act limit a landlord’s ability to investigate requests for accommodations for service and assistance animals, but not all questions are foreclosed. This is a good thing and reflects our shared values because we want to encourage people with disabilities to get the necessary treatment and services; we want to open the opportunity for a full life to all. But we also don’t want people to make false claims of disability to obtain an improper benefit or unnecessary accommodation. To do so only serves to detract from those who truly suffer.
Recently a client called us needing help. The client owns a single family rental property and does not allow her tenants to keep animals. The tenant called in October about relaxing the no pets rule because he wanted to get his daughter a puppy for Christmas. The landlord declined. One week later, the tenant called again, this time to claim a need for an assistance animal and to request an accommodation.
The landlord had no prior knowledge of any disability and was obviously suspicious that this sudden need for an accommodation was simply a ruse to get around the no pets rule. She turned to us to determine what she should do. The landlord wanted to do the right thing, she wanted to comply with the law. But she also did not want to be taken advantage of.
After discussing the facts with the client and reviewing relevant statutory and case law, we sent a letter to the tenant explaining that the landlord had no prior knowledge that any member of the tenant’s family suffered from any disability, and asked for some documentation to establish (i) the existence of the disability and (ii) how the animal will provide a service or alleviate some symptom of the disability. We also asked for information about the specific animal they intended to bring into the home.
Not so surprisingly, the tenant never responded to our request for information, and no animal (service or otherwise) was brought into the home.
Note that landlords can be found in violation of the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act for even seemingly innocuous questions. If your tenant requests a disability related accommodation, you should consult an attorney about your specific facts and circumstances before making any investigation into the request for an accommodation. More information from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity can be found here.