If you suspect that documentation for assistance animals is suspicious, you may ask for more information.
Recently, you may have noticed documentation coming from websites that offer assistance animal “certifications” for a fee, but they appear to provide this documentation without firsthand knowledge of a person’s disability or what assistance or support the animal provides.
Some housing providers don’t raise questions about suspicious documentation because they fear being accused of discrimination. It is important to know that it is okay to question suspicious documentation and ask for more information.
However, you must be very careful about the questions you ask, the statements you make, and the additional documentation that you request. Your words could be used as evidence of disability discrimination. It is advised that you involve legal counsel when following up on suspicious documentation for assistance animals.
In fact, the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) Fair Housing Board recently issued informative guidance on this very topic. It is worth a read, even if you don’t have properties in Virginia.
What the Virginia fair housing board says is, “A person with a disability, or a person associated with such person, may submit a request for a reasonable accommodation to maintain an assistance animal in a dwelling. Subject to subsection B, the person receiving the request may ask the requester to provide reliable documentation of the disability and the disability-related need for an assistance animal, including documentation from any person with whom the person with a disability has or has had a therapeutic relationship.”
If documentation seems suspicious, it might be helpful to do a quick web search on the organization or individual that issued it.
Documentation for Assistance Animals Potential Red Flags
Here are some things that might be red flags.
The site offers “official” certifications, registrations or IDs for service or assistance animals. Currently, there are no legally recognized organizations for registering service or assistance animals. Sites that claim to be certifying bodies or that offer official registrations are misleading because there is no such thing.
The site offers a “training certificate” as proof that the animal is an assistance animal.
Under the FHA, there is no requirement that assistance animals be trained. Documentation for assistance animals only needs to establish that the person has a disability and that the animal provides disability-related assistance or emotional support. An animal’s training is not relevant when evaluating a reasonable accommodations request.
The site issues documentation without interacting with the person making the request.
HUD states that you are entitled to documentation from a reliable third party that is in a position to know about the individual’s disability. If the organization or person who issued the documentation has never talked to or met with the person requesting the accommodation, it is reasonable to ask for supplemental information.
Do Not Immediately Deny the Accommodation Request
No matter what the source for the documentation of assistance animals, if you are suspicious, do not immediately deny the accommodation request. Instead, start a conversation with the resident to gather more information.
Evaluating a reasonable accommodation request should be an individualized process with an ongoing dialog between you and the resident. Often people file discrimination claims because they don’t feel heard, don’t understand the process, or aren’t kept in the loop. Don’t underestimate the importance of good communication.
Ellen Clark is the Director of Assessment at Grace Hill. Her work has spanned the entire learner lifecycle, from elementary school through professional education. She spent over 10 years working with K12 Inc.’s network of online charter schools – measuring learning, developing learning improvement plans using evidence-based strategies, and conducting learning studies. Later, at Kaplan Inc., she worked in the vocational education and job training divisions, improving online, blended and face-to-face training programs, and working directly with business leaders and trainers to improve learner outcomes and job performance. Ellen lives and works in Maryland, where she was born and raised.
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