How many landlords have been presented with a letter stating someone is under the writer’s care, has a disability, and needs an emotional support animal to help with their life’s activities? Many are legitimate, but thousands come from so-called ESA Mills.
An Alabama landlord recently sent me a copy of an ESA letter. It was for someone who had lived in Alabama for many years. Despite that, she had a letter from a licensed social worker in California. It indicated the tenant prospect was a patient of the social worker and under his care. It said the prospect had an emotional disability and an animal was required during flight and in her housing because it would make a substantial difference. Was the letter bogus?
First, I thought about this California social worker who did not have a license in Alabama. He could have obtained one, just like a reciprocal real estate license. He’d done it for about half a dozen other states (none of them near California!) How could he claim that an Alabama resident was his patient and under his care, if he did not have a license here? That seemed illegal to me. So, I contacted the Alabama State Board of Social Work Examiners. They said they were not allowed to give me advice about my question, but they did give me directions to the place on their website to file a complaint against the social worker for assisting Alabama residents without a license! I think that pretty much answered my question.
Next, I wondered how a social worker who lived and worked in California could engage in the interaction necessary for a diagnosis of a disability that substantially affects one or more life activities. Also, how did he observe his patient’s interaction with a particular dog and come to an independent conclusion regarding the animal’s ability to reduce the symptoms of the disability. According to William Deardorff, Ph.D, of the American Board of Professional Psychology (“ABPP”), “The mental health professional should be ready to state whether or not she/he directly observed the patient interacting with the ESA. Otherwise, the ESA recommendation is based solely on the patient’s self-report. If that is the case, be prepared to justify why one would not pursue direct observation and how it was concluded that the results are still valid. If observation is completed, document how the ESA helped ameliorate the symptoms (beyond simple emotional comfort).”
Think about this. Can you corner a medical doctor at a social event, describe your symptoms, and get a prescription for blood pressure medicine or anything else? Of course not! What makes people think it is okay to fill out an online questionnaire with a social worker, receive a diagnosis within 24 hours, and obtain an ESA letter that dramatically affects landlords and airlines?
The advice in this article is to never accept ESA letters at face value. Examine who wrote them, whether they have an Alabama license, and whether they even have a license in the jurisdiction where they claim to be located. Search the Internet for the writer of the letter, to see if they are associated with any of the largely discredited “ESA Mills” that sell such letters to anyone who can complete an online questionnaire and pay the fee. Do not be afraid to file complaints against people you think are abusing the system. If you accept a tenant, or allow an existing tenant to have a disability animal, insist they sign an Animal Addendum and abide by all of the requirements. Have the tenant or prospect sign an affidavit stating they have been a patient (or client, as the case might be) of the ESA letter writer for X number of months or years, and interact with that person an average of X times a year. Include a disclaimer across the bottom that fraudulent claims for the need of an ESA, unsupported by legitimate diagnoses and recommendations, will be prosecuted and will form the basis of lease termination for fraud in the application or rental agreement.
You cannot charge higher rent, a pet fee, or a pet deposit for a disability animal. You can insist that your property be protected, the common areas remain safe, and neighbors are free from excessive barking and other “over sharing” types of activities. You can evict even if a person with a disability defaults in the terms of the Animal Addendum and does not cure. (A disability is a reason for the landlord to modify its rules against pets or imposition of fees. It is not a “get out of jail free” card for the tenant to do whatever they want!) For more info about our Animal Addendum and Affidavit, click the button below.