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verification for assistance animal

Where Do You Draw The Line On Verification For Assistance Animals?

As landlords and property managers, you walk a thin line with regard to accommodation requests involving assistance animals.  You obviously want to make sure that any tenant who needs an assistance animal is accommodated.  At the same time, you need to require enough verification to weed out anyone who is trying to take advantage of the Fair Housing Act.  As a fair housing attorney, I’m always curious about where to draw the line.  How much verification is too much?

That’s why a recent complaint filed by HUD caught my attention.  HUD challenged the reasonable accommodation and pet policies of a housing provider as having “impose[d] mandatory burdensome conditions on individuals with disabilities who request animal assistance.”  The landlord required tenants to fill out several forms, including an accommodation request form and a doctor’s prescription form.  So what bothered HUD?  Apparently, it was the doctor’s prescription form, which required the doctor to accept liability for any damage or injury caused by the animal in question.

As I am sure you can imagine, each of the doctors approached in the case above refused to sign any such form.  This requirement was seen by HUD as a violation of the Act on the basis of discrimination, given that the failure of the tenant to secure a doctor’s signature resulted in the denial of the request.

So what should you do?

Other than the guidelines I discussed in a previous post, do not, I repeat, do not attempt to assign liability to the prescribing doctor in a tenant’s request for an assistance animal. This action will likely be considered discriminatory under the Act, and could open you up to enforcement for an FHA violation.  Keep in mind that this doctor requirement is just one example of a recent burdensome requirement, and if any part of your reasonable accommodation process may be interpreted as placing an excessive burden on the requesting tenant, it is worth looking at.

Do We Have to Allow Criminals As Tenants? HUD Says Maybe.

Now that the Supreme Court has definitively ruled that disparate impact claims are valid under the Fair Housing Act (discussed in further detail here), HUD has issued guidance regarding one common multifamily property policy that it believes has a discriminatory effect on minorities—criminal background screening.

In light of statistics demonstrating that African Americans and Hispanics are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population, HUD warned in guidance published on April 4, 2016 that criminal records-based barriers to housing are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers.  Accordingly, landlords and management companies will need to have a substantial, legitimate, and nondiscriminatory reason for implementing a policy which considers criminal records in the housing application process.  Moreover, landlords and management should ensure that the interest achieved by their criminal background screening policy cannot be achieved by another practice that has a less discriminatory effect.

So does that mean that you cannot consider a prospect’s criminal background at all during the application process?  Not exactly.  HUD seems to agree that ensuring resident safety and protecting property are likely to be considered substantial and legitimate interests.  But it also warns that your criminal background policy darn sure better be tailored to achieve those goals. In terms of actual, specific (and useful) guidance, HUD does make two clear assertions: 1) a policy that excludes prospects because of one or more prior arrests (without a conviction) is unlikely to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest; and 2) a policy that imposes a blanket prohibition on any person with any conviction (without any consideration of when the conviction occurred, what the underlying conduct entailed, or what the convicted person has done since) is also unlikely to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.

So what can you do?  Simple—sit down, and review your criminal background policy to make sure that it is tailored to meet your policy goals (such as protection of residents and property).  In essence, make sure that your policy only excludes based on criminal conduct that indicates a demonstrable risk to resident safety and/or property.  And make sure that you are taking into account mitigating factors, such as the amount of time that has passed since the conviction.  In other words, while you may be fine with a policy that excludes prospects with a violent felony conviction in the past seven years (absent any mitigating circumstance), you’re probably going to want to rethink a policy that excludes any prospect with a minor traffic offense.  The bottom-line is that you need to sit down and give some serious (and documented) thought to your criminal background policy to make sure that it is truly achieving your policy goals.