Grace Hill Training Tip of the Week
Handling Suspicious Assistance Animal Verifications
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 ok 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.
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.
If documentation seems suspicious, it might be helpful to do a quick web search on the organization or individual that issued it. 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 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.
No matter what source the documentation is from, 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.