Disabled persons and housing providers [landlords, apartment owners, HOAs] alike are perplexed about who can write an accommodation request letter for a disabled person to verify their disability and disability-related need for their assistance animal. Many housing providers, including a University recently last week, erroneously believe such a letter must come from a physician, and so require a “doctor’s letter” to verify the need before providing the necessary accommodation. Many landlords will not accept a letter if it's not from doctor- this is a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Unfortunately, HUD does not provide absolute boundaries in its definition of “who” could be providing the verification letter:
"Housing providers may ask individuals who have disabilities that are not readily apparent or known to the provider to submit reliable documentation of a disability and their disability-related need for an assistance animal."
HUD only requires that the documentation be reliable. There are reasons a “service dog certificate” is not a reliable source to verify a disability nor a disability-related need. I’m in possession of an ID card for an African Elephant registered to be an Emotional Support Animal. Don’t believe me? Send me an email and I will share the ID card with you to show that such online service animal and emotional support animal registries are scams.
"Such documentation is sufficient if it establishes that an individual has a disability and that the animal in question will provide some type of disability-related assistance or emotional support."
A letter from one’s doctor would certainly be sufficient, but is that the minimum standard? No. That standard would be too high. How about a minister, a professor, or a licensed clinical social worker? There are no boundaries regarding “who” can provide the documentation, according to HUD’s statement.
Also, consider the fact that many doctors probably don’t have the history or experience with the disabled person’s dog to actually know or verify that it provides some sort of “assistance” to alleviate a symptom of the disability. But a doctor could certainly verify the disability. It would be most convenient to find a “reliable source” which could verify both the disability and the disability-related need, wouldn’t it? Otherwise it might sound like a disabled person would have to scrape up two different documents: one to verify the disability, and the other to verify the disability-related need.
Hud provides some clarification in its 2004 joint statement with the DOJ- Reasonable Accommodations Under the Fair Housing ACT:
"A doctor or other medical professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency, or a reliable third party who is in a position to know about the individual's disability may also provide verification of a disability."
Okay, so HUD agrees there is a wide spectrum of “reliable” to range from doctor to some “reliable third party” provided that the third party is “in a position to know” about the person’s disability. This, from the horse’s mouth, offers great flexibility.
In Fair Housing Advocates’ experience the integrity of the letter comes down to who wrote it AND what is written in the letter, as well as how it is written. For example- could a neighbor be a “reliable” source? What if the letter from the neighbor states that he was the neighbor who phoned the ambulance when the disabled person fell into convulsions and was alerted by the barking assistance animal? Based on that letter the neighbor would be “in a position” to verify the disability and the disability-related need for the assistance animal, correct?
A “peer support group” could be a veterans organization which knows the disabled veteran and has first-hand experience witnessing the assistance provided by the service dog to the veteran.
HUD will likely conduct an “individualized” assessment of each situation to determine if the documentation submitted to verify the disability and disability-related need is “reliable” or not. HUD will look to determine who wrote the letter and their relationship with the disabled person. HUD will consider what was written in each letter to support its efficacy.
Fair Housing Advocates recommends that the disabled person start at the top of the food chain when searching for a reliable source, and to have a letter written on letterhead so that HUD can assume the writer’s credentials. Otherwise it is in FHA's experience that practically anyone can write an effective verification letter provided that HUD can come to the conclusion that the author and the contents of the letter provide bona fide verification.
There is nothing, by the way, that states everything must be contained in one letter written by one author. Perhaps one letter is written by a licensed clinical social worker, and the other letter verifying the disability-related need is written by a service dog trainer.
If you or a family member is disabled, and you believe you are being subjected to unfair rules, policies, or practices by your landlord, your HOA, Condo Association or even your city, please let Fair Housing Advocates, Inc. know by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (877) 838-9963. We are nonprofit fair housing organization proudly offering all of our services to any person at no cost, regardless of their household income. If you are a military veteran and would like to learn more about how we can help your organization, please reach us.