Alabama landlords are dealing with an increasing amount of requests from tenants to keep emotional support animals (ESAs) under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), even as evidence of the therapeutic benefit of ESAs has been called into question. Part of the influx of ESAs appears to be driven by for-profit companies offering meaningless ESA “registrations” to tenants and then connecting them with medical providers, often for “telehealth” consultations. How can landlords distinguish between legitimate ESA requests from disabled individuals and those that should be denied?
HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity’s notice entitled “Service Animals and Assistance Animals for People with Disabilities in Housing and HUD-Funded Programs” is a good place to start for an overview of ESA regulations and policies. However, many ESA requests fall into gray areas and are best handled by an experienced attorney. For instance, whether a telehealth disability diagnosis meets the FHA’s requirements for an ESA can be very difficult to determine. Regulations on medical providers vary state-by-state and from profession-to-profession. Is medical documentation reliable when a provider may have only had a single phone call, chat or videoconference with the tenant before determining he or she is disabled? Landlords should consult with an attorney before deciding whether to grant such an ESA request.
In addition to consulting with an attorney, landlords should train their employees on FHA regulations and thoroughly document their files to avoid a HUD complaint and potential financial penalties that may follow a wrongful ESA denial.
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