South Dakota lawmakers have passed a new measure designed to discourage renters from passing off pets as companion animals.
The state is one of more than a dozen — most recently Colorado, Massachusetts and Virginia — to tackle the problem of fraudulent service animals. South Dakota is unique in one respect: the law specifically targets emotional support animals.
Recently, a boutique industry has emerged that caters to pet owners seeking to “certify” an animal as a service or companion animal. These businesses provide prescription letters, purportedly from health professionals, with a simple phone call or online application. The websites encourage animal owners by describing possible symptoms — like trouble sleeping, nightmares, and anxiety — that could warrant an emotional support animal prescription, streamlining the diagnosis of a disability, and offering no-money-down guarantees that a letter will be provided.
In addition to creating prescription letters to present to landlords, the websites commonly offer certificates, ID cards, and service vests or harnesses that help owners overcome pet restrictions.
There are no reliable statistics that show how many companion animal requests are legitimate versus bogus attempts to avoid no-pet policies or pet deposits. The rules make it extremely difficult to catch a fraudster in the act — landlords can be prosecuted for discrimination simply for asking too many questions. That roils landlords, as well as tenants with disabilities who actually benefit from emotional support animals.
Landlords are in a tough position. Making the wrong call on a companion request can lead to a discrimination lawsuit, which can cost thousands of dollars to defend and is money lost even if the landlord prevails.
Under HUD rules, a companion can be any animal — chickens, monkeys, ponies, snakes, rats — and that creates a dilemma for landlords who also must protect the safety and quiet enjoyment of other residents. Under current law, landlords may confirm that the tenant suffers from a disability, and that an animal is prescribed by “a health provider” to treat the disability. Beyond that, there is little a landlord can do in terms of denying the request.
The South Dakota law, which goes into effect in July, attempts to reduce the number of fraudulent requests for companion animals by targeting the prescription letters provided to landlords. Under the new measure, tenants must produce a prescription from a licensed health care professional, and the prescription cannot come from a website provider or any business in the state that operates “solely to provide certification for service or assistance animals.”
If it is determined that a tenant faked the disability or the documentation, the landlord has an express right to evict the tenant and is entitled to up to $1,000 in damages.
The measure is largely symbolic in the sense that landlords already can require reliable documentation from a health professional to document a companion animal request. However, the possibility of paying a fine and being evicted likely will discourage some tenants from making false requests.
Regardless of state laws, landlords do have some rights under the federal fair housing provisions. For instance, only tenants who suffer a disability are entitled to make companion animal requests. Tenants are held accountable for the care and safety of the animals and can be evicted for causing disturbances or breaking other provisions of the lease agreement. Tenants are liable for any damage the animal causes. And, landlords are not expected to endure undue financial hardship or break the law in order to accommodate a companion animal request.
This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.