The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has requested that the Federal Trade Commission investigate certain websites that sell assistance animal documentation for potential deceptive and unfair business practices. This action not only helps consumers avoid scams, but the letter should be of interest to landlords and property managers as it clarifies a common question about assistance animal certificates.
What’s the Issue?
Under the federal Fair Housing Act, a landlord must grant a reasonable accommodation for an individual with a disability when it may be necessary for the individual to have an equal opportunity to enjoy and use the dwelling. A common request for a reasonable accommodation is a request to keep an animal as an assistance animal, which would otherwise be prohibited under the landlord’s pet restrictions. Once such a request has been made, the landlord may be able to ask for additional information.
If an individual’s disability is not obvious or known, a landlord may request “reliable documentation” from the individual. HUD guidance says that reliable documentation could include things like a verification from a medical professional or a disability determination from a government agency. The documentation is said to be sufficient if it establishes that the person has a disability and that the animal will provide some type of disability-related assistance.
How Does this Relate to Assistance Animal Certificates?
A frequent question on the Texas REALTORS® Legal Hotline is whether assistance animal certificates—certificates or registrations purchased online by an individual in an effort to demonstrate an animal is an assistance animal under the Fair Housing Act—count as reliable documentation. HUD has long been silent on whether assistance animal certificates are considered reliable documentation.
In the letter to the FTC, HUD made clear that while a healthcare professional who provides services remotely, including over the internet, may provide a reliable verification of an individual’s disability-related need for an assistance animal, the provider must have personal knowledge of the individual’s disability-related need for the animal. Personal knowledge is knowledge of the type that healthcare providers ordinarily use for diagnosis and treatment.
In HUD’s view, these websites offer documentation that is not reliable because the website operators and healthcare professionals who consult with them lack the necessary personal knowledge about the individual. The websites typically obtain information from the individual through an online questionnaire or, at most, a brief interview.
What’s the Bottom Line?
HUD says that certifications, registrations, and other documentation purchased through these websites are not necessary, may not contain reliable information, and are insufficient to establish an individual’s disability-related need for an assistance animal.