RENT Magazine Q1 '22

I have a no-pet policy, but I recently discovered my tenant is hiding a large Pitbull from me. When I found out about the dog, the tenant got an emotional support letter from an online doctor. Is that legitimate? Can I evict him for being dishonest on his rental application and violating my no-pet policy?

HUD has made it clear that a tenant has the right to make a request for a reasonable accommodation, such as an emotional support animal (ESA), at any time, including after obtaining and hiding the animal. If a tenant is keeping an unauthorized animal and requests the accommodation only after it is discovered, you must still consider and process the reasonable accommodation request, which includes verifying the resident’s disability status and disability-related need for the animal. The fact that these circumstances create an inference of bad faith on the part of the tenant does not release the landlord from the obligation of processing the delayed request. Purchased ESA letters from online therapists/ doctors are becoming more and more common, but this is a grey area and HUD has not provided direct guidance on how to handle them. Based on the guidance that is available on assistance animal requests, it is reasonable to assume that housing providers should accept them in some circumstances. Telehealth is a common practice, so whether a letter purchased from these online providers is reliable and/or acceptable for verification purposes is fact-specific. For more information check out a video on Assistance Animals here.

If you have questions about whether a specific letter that you’ve received is adequate or whether you should ask additional questions of the resident or therapist, it is a good idea to contact a fair housing attorney for assistance. If the ESA request is properly verified and approved, then a landlord should not evict a tenant based on the presence of an ESA. This is true even if the tenant brought the animal into the unit without landlord approval. If after processing the request, the ESA request is denied due to the resident’s failure to provide a reliable verification, only then should a lease violation notice be issued for the lease violation of bringing an unapproved animal to live on the premises. Some factors include: • Did the tenant contact the provider for the sole purpose of obtaining the letter? • Has the tenant received professional services from the provider since receiving the letter, or have additional services been scheduled? • Does the provider actually have personal knowledge of the tenant and his/her impairment(s), or did the tenant simply answer a brief questionnaire to obtain the letter?

Leslie Tucker Fair Housing Attorney and Partner Williams, Edelstein, & Tucker

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