By Peter Vickery, Esq., Legislative Affairs Counsel
Dear Attorney General Healey:
With regard to emotional support animals (ESAs) MassLandlords would be grateful for an advisory from your office making clear that the documents provided by certain online entities are not sufficient. We would appreciate your leadership on this consumer-protection problem, which confronts our members and the individuals and families who rent homes from them.
Subject to state and federal fair-housing laws, some Massachusetts landlords have a no-pets policy. Sometimes renters ask landlords to waive the no-pets policy on the basis of disability so as to allow them to keep an ESA on the rented premises. In determining whether the renter is making a legitimate request for a reasonable accommodation, landlords are entitled to ask for evidence from a professional (e.g. a behavioral healthcare provider or social worker) that the renter has a disability and that the animal ameliorates a symptom of that disability.
Unfortunately, several online registries offer documents — for a fee — that purport to demonstrate that an animal is an ESA. But these products are not verified by a professional who has any knowledge of the individual’s behavioral health, and they cause considerable confusion and frustration. Our members have seen too many renters spend money on certificates, ID cards, and other items that are worthless.
For example, the United States Dog Registry sells a “lifetime certificate,” ID card, and “emotional support tag” for $79.00.
To be fair, the site does offer this caveat:
“The Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) gives individuals the right to live with their emotional support dog regardless of any building or residences with a no-pet policy. Building managers or landlords may not refuse your emotional support dog. You are required to have a current (within the past year) letter from a doctor or mental health professional recommending that you have an emotional support dog for your condition.”
However, this information appears toward the bottom of the page in the fine-print.
Similarly, on its ESA letter page (replete with a picture of a white-coated arm signing an official-looking document) the USA Service Dog Registration advertises the product as follows:
“Having trouble with your landlord or HOA our ESA letter will help you and your ESA live happily ever after together. Our licensed medical therapists will evaluate your condition and provide a prescription for your ESA.”
The price? $149.00.
An over-the-phone evaluation from a “licensed medical therapist” who will provide a “prescription” does not constitute reasonable evidence of the need for an ESA, and we would be grateful if you would make this clear via an official advisory or guidance.
The Massachusetts Office on Disability blog, MOD Blog states:
Many entities claim to offer “certification,” “registration,” or “licensure” of service animals and or emotional support animals for a fee, often on the internet. These forms of documentation have no legal status, are not recognized by the ADA, the Department of Justice, or Massachusetts law as proof that an animal is a service animal or an emotional support animal, and are not required by law.
(Beware of Entities Charging a Fee for Service Animal/Emotional Support Animal “Certification,” August 27, 2015).
While we welcome the posting of this MOD Blog article, and the fact that a link to it appears on the Discrimination Office’s online overview of service and assistance animals, the blog post has little evidentiary weight. More helpful for landlords and tenants alike would be an official guidance document from the Attorney General, similar to the Advisory titled “All Tenants Have the Right to be Free from Harassment and Intimidation” and the Advisory on Lead Paint Discrimination. These publications from your office provide the sort of clarity that would be beneficial in the area of ESAs.
Our goal is to help renters avoid wasting time and money and to prevent unnecessary landlord-tenant conflict. MassLandlords members have an interest in ensuring that any renter with a disability is able to provide proper documentation (including evidence that the animal is licensed and vaccinated) without falling prey to online scams. Although some members caution tenants to steer clear of online registries that sell worthless certificates, the warnings would carry more weight coming from a neutral, independent officer of state government.
Because the Office of the Attorney General enforces the laws that protect Massachusetts residents from fraud, deception, and other unfair practices, we believe that an advisory from your office would prove invaluable in the effort to safeguard renters from the predatory tactics of deceptive online ESA registries.
We are mindful that in some states landlords are lobbying for laws to punish tenants who abuse the fair-housing laws by making bogus ESA claims. Legislation of that sort is expressly not what the members of MassLandlords are seeking. Our objective is protection, not punishment. To the extent that fake ESAs are a problem (and we suspect that the problem is not so widespread as headlines would suggest) the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will likely tackle it at the national level in due course. In the meantime, we hope that you will issue an official advisory regarding the deceptive online ESA registries that exploit renters here in Massachusetts.
Thank you for your time, attention, and ongoing service to the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Peter Vickery, Esq.
Legislative Affairs Counsel