How to Handle Online Assistance Animal Certifications for Reasonable Accommodations
Recently, HUD’s focus has been directed to certain websites that may be selling assistance animal verifications. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has written to Chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Joseph J. Simons and Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Andrew Smith requesting that the FTC investigate these websites.
“These certificates are not an acceptable substitute for authentic documentation provided by medical professionals when appropriate,” said Secretary Carson. “These websites that sell assistance animal certificates are often also misleading by implying that they are affiliated with the federal government. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their goal is to convince individuals with disabilities that they need to spend hundreds of dollars on worthless documentation to keep their assistance animal in their homes.”
The letter asked the FTC to investigate these websites for compliance with federal laws that protect consumers from unfair and deceptive acts or practices. HUD has identified at least one website that contains the seal of HUD without authorization.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans housing discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including the refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when they’re necessary to provide individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home at a site.
The reasonable accommodation provisions come into play whenever an individual with a disability wants to use an assistance animal at sites that either prohibit or impose restrictions or conditions on pets at the site. Like all reasonable accommodation requests, the determination of whether an individual has a disability-related need for an assistance animal involves an individualized assessment, according to HUD.
Federal fair housing law broadly defines “disability” to mean physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities. That covers a wide variety of physical and psychological impairments—many of which aren’t obvious or apparent—as long as the impairment is serious enough to substantially limit a major life activity, such as seeing, hearing, walking, or caring for oneself.
Assistance animals are not pets under fair housing law, according to HUD. They’re animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. You can’t charge an extra fee or pet deposit as a condition of granting a reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal.
Fair housing law allows not only service dogs, but also any type of animal that provides assistance or emotional support to an individual with a disability. Documentation, such as a note from a healthcare professional, is helpful and appropriate when a disability is not obvious and not already known.
Handling Online Certifications
Knowing the rules on disability verification is essential to avoiding the common mistakes that lead to complaints involving requests for assistance animals. In general, fair housing law forbids housing providers from making disability-related inquiries. But there’s an exception that allows sites to ask for verification in response to a reasonable accommodation request when either the disability—or the disability-related need for the requested accommodation—isn’t obvious or apparent.
It’s particularly important to understand the verification rules now that so many applicants and residents can go online and find a quick “certification” process to say their dog is a certified assistance animal. Often, you’ll be presented with an official-looking certificate embellished with a gold seal and ready for framing. If an applicant or resident submits one of these certifications, don’t reject the request out of hand simply because it makes you suspicious. You still have an obligation to consider, respond, and act upon the request for an assistance animal.
When an applicant provides you with an online certification that he needs an assistance animal, you should determine whether it meets the requirements that it’s reliable and from someone familiar with the applicant’s disability. If it doesn’t, it’s better to say thank you, make a copy for the file, and explain to the applicant that the site requires verification from a knowledgeable third-party healthcare provider.
Explain that you need the name and contact information of the healthcare provider so that you can send out the verification form. Politely decline an offer by the applicant to get the form signed himself. Explain that the site’s policy is to send out the form directly to the healthcare provider and to have it sent back directly to you.
Check with your attorney about the language to be used on the verification form. In general, you should be able to receive confirmation from the applicant’s treating healthcare provider to verify that the applicant is under the provider’s care and treatment and has a diagnosed medical or mental condition that renders the patient disabled. Also, you may request confirmation from the provider that the animal is prescribed to assist with the disability.
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|Use Forms to Verify Resident's Need for Assistance Animal|