HUD Takes Aggressive Position Regarding Online Verification of Assistance Animals

On November 6, 2019, the Department of Housing & Urban Development asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Bureau of Consumer Protection to investigate websites that sell assistance animal documentation.

These certifications – which are almost always bogus – have been the bane of housing managers for years, as applicants get past landlord pet rules by paying for an illegitimate verification of a disability and the need for an assistance animal.

The letter from HUD, which was signed by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, provides a stinging rebuke to these websites and makes it clear that in most cases, HUD will not consider the verifications provided by such sites to be legitimate verifications of need.

The letter states “the websites also may be selling assistance animal documentation to people who do not have disabilities substantially limiting a major life activity, enabling such people to claim that their pets are assistance animals in order to evade housing providers’ pet restrictions and pet fees. HUD shares these concerns.”

As the letter states, “under the FHA, assistance animals are not required to be ‘registered’ or ‘certified,’ nor, in HUD’s opinion, does certification or registration provide any benefit to the consumer with a disability who needs an assistance animal.” Perhaps the most telling statement in the letter is “Certifications, registrations, and other documentation purchased over the Internet through these websites are not necessary, may not contain reliable information, and, in HUD’s FHA enforcement process, are insufficient to establish an individual’s disability-related need for an assistance animal.” (Emphasis added). This statement indicates that HUD does not consider such verifications to be legitimate, meaning that owners and managers generally do not have to rely on this type of verification for purposes of assistance animals.

There are circumstances where a healthcare professional may provide services remotely, including over the Internet. But, as stated by HUD, this is only the case when “the provider has personal knowledge of the individual’s disability-related need for the animal. Personal knowledge is knowledge of the type that health care providers ordinarily use for diagnosis and treatment.”

In HUD’s opinion, the operators of these websites “lack the personal knowledge that is necessary to make such determinations.” As described in the letter, most of these websites rely on online questionnaires, or, at best, a brief interview, prior to issuing the “certification.”

Finally, HUD stated that “These websites are also interfering with the rights of individuals with disabilities substantially limiting a major life activity under the FHA by selling documentation that people without disabilities can use to pass of their pets as assistance animals.”

While we cannot know whether the FTC will ultimately take action against these websites, this request from HUD alone will be a dagger to the heart of these shameless scams. It is also very good news for landlords who have been hesitant to reject these sham verifications for fear of being found in violation of fair housing law. The harsh language used by HUD – the federal fair housing enforcement agency – provides serious weight to the rights of landlords with regard to requiring verification of the need for assistance (especially emotional support) animals. It also goes a long way in protecting the rights of disabled individuals who actually need such animals.