Clearing the air on service animals
Verification is a much-talked about issue between landlords and their property managers.
Properties with no pet policies must make exception to persons in need of service animals. First and foremost, service animals are not “pets.” Service animals provide much needed disability-related assistance and emotional support. This, however, opens the doors to potentially abuse (i.e., a person saying their pet is a service animal when it provides no such function). Vigilant landlords and property managers will seek to avoid such circumstances, but how are they to respond in such a situation? What type of verification can they get from the tenant to make sure the tenant is not abusing the system?
The federal government provided some guidelines on the issue that have been favorably cited to in a recent Pennsylvania case. The first question is whether the disability or need for the service animal is clear. If the disability is known to the landlord or otherwise apparent, then verification cannot be requested. For instance, if a person is blind then they cannot be asked to provide a statement from his or her doctor verifying the (apparent) blindness. Situations like this are little cause for concern, as it is nearly impossible to abuse the process.
The major issues landlords and property managers have is where a person is claiming a need for an emotional support animal. Obviously, psychological and emotional ailments are not visible in the same manner as a sight or mobility impairment. Further, Pennsylvania law prohibits inquiry into whether a person has a disability. Thus, regardless of federal law saying that it may be proper for certain inquiry, Pennsylvania law prohibits said inquiry. The difference between federal and state law may be most easily explained on the basis that federal law does not protect for emotional support animals, whereas Pennsylvania law does.
In cases where the impairment is not apparent, the landlord or property manager may ask individuals to provide reliable evidence of disability-related service the animal provides. If the animal does not provide a service that directly ameliorates the disability or special need, how can it be said that the animal is a necessary accommodation? When reviewing documentation it is important to look for the link between the disability and what the animal does to alleviate the disability. In this case, requesting detailed medical records pertaining to the disability is not proper, rather a note from the treating physician, psychologist or other professional will suffice.
While the potential for abuse still exists, taking the steps outlined in this article will help to successfully navigate this tricky issue.