Question: I am a partner in a small property management company. I know that disability and reasonable accommodation issues need to be handled carefully, so I try to keep up with the latest rules. However, I have recently received "certificates" from tenants for their pets from a website, certifying their pet as an emotional support animal. My owners are very worried about being sued and are afraid to say no when they see these very official-looking certificates. Are we bound to allow these pets just because we receive these Internet certificates?
Answer: The short answer to your question is no. A certificate from a website, in all likelihood, has nothing to do with whether a tenant is entitled to have an emotional support animal.
As a housing provider, your decisions regarding whether to accept a tenant's emotional support animal are guided by the state and federal fair housing laws. Some people confuse these laws with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Service animals are treated differently in some ways under the ADA, which applies to public places, such as restaurants.
However, none of these laws requires a service animal to be "certified."
Under the ADA, a service animal must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
Under the fair housing laws, an emotional support animal or other type of medical support animal does not have to be individually trained. All that matters is that the tenant has a disability within the meaning of the fair housing laws and that the animal ameliorates the effects of the disability in some way.
The required paperwork for a tenant seeking to qualify a support animal is a letter from a medical professional familiar with the tenant's condition that attests to the tenant's disability, and to the role the animal plays in treating the tenant's disability.
The question remains whether a service animal "certificate" from a website establishes a tenant's right to have an emotional support animal. The answer to this question is almost certainly no.
Regardless of the seemingly official nature of the website certificate, you do not know what standards were used in issuing the certificate, if any, or what kind of information the applicant submitted to secure the certificate. First and foremost, a certificate from a website is unlikely to be from a medical professional personally familiar with the tenant's disability. A website cannot honestly state whether or how this specific animal facilitates his or her disabled owner's ability to use and enjoy housing — which, after all, is the standard the tenant must meet under the fair housing laws.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.