The Landlord's Guide to Avoiding a Fake ESA Letter

Emotional support animal (ESA) letters allow people with disabilities to have their assistance animal in housing that doesn't allow pets, but some pet owners try to get these letters through fraudulent means. Here, we'll cover the requirements for getting a legitimate ESA letter, how to spot fake letters, and the legal repercussions of fabricating an emotional support animal letter.

By
Nichole Stohler
|
Last Updated
June 4, 2024
The Landlord's Guide to Avoiding a Fake ESA Letter

Landlords have valid reasons to implement pet policies like pet security deposits and no-pets-allowed rules to protect their rental properties from potential damage. However, they must make exceptions to these policies for tenants who require an emotional support animal due to a documented mental or emotional disability. When they provide legitimate documentation from a licensed professional, these tenants are legally permitted to have a pet despite restrictions.

Unfortunately, some people attempt to bypass pet policies by creating fake ESA letters. This puts landlords in a difficult position: how can they reliably identify real needs versus fake documentation? They don't want to wrongfully deny disability accommodations, but they also need to guard against exploitation and bogus claims from non-qualifying tenants.

Verifying the legitimacy of ESA accommodation requests while following fair housing laws requires a balance for landlords. Failing to accommodate real needs can bring legal liability, but being deceived by fraudulent letters can also negatively impact your business. To help you protect your interests and your livelihood, we'll cover how to identify fake letters and what's in legitimate ESA documentation.

What are ESA letters?

Emotional support animal (ESA) letters are issued by licensed mental health professionals to certify a person's need for an emotional support animal, which provides therapeutic benefits for people with mental or emotional disabilities. Landlords need to be aware that these animals have protections under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Tenants present ESA letters to have their emotional support animals live with them without being charged additional fees or deposits. The letter serves as official documentation of the person's disability-related need for the animal.

Emotional support animals vs. service animals

Sometimes people confuse an ESA with a service animal. It can be tricky to understand the differences between them, but here’s how they differ:

  • Emotional support animals: Emotional support dogs provide therapeutic benefits to their owners through their presence and companionship. They don't require specialized training beyond basic obedience. Federal guidelines for these animals fall under the FHA and ACAA.
  • Service animals: A service dog or animal provides specific tasks to its owner, helping them manage their disability, such as monitoring a person with epilepsy at risk of an impending seizure. Service dogs have protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and broader public access rights.

Identifying valid ESA letters

If a tenant provides you with an ESA letter, how can you be sure it's legitimate? Here are the key elements to look for to confirm its authenticity:

Authorization by a licensed mental health professional

The signed ESA letter must be written and issued by a licensed mental health professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or professional counselor. They also must be licensed to practice in the state where the person lives.

Disability-related need for an ESA

The medical professional must determine that the presence of an emotional support animal is part of the person's treatment plan and is necessary for their mental health and well-being. The animal must provide therapeutic benefits directly related to the diagnosed disability.

Established client-provider relationship

Some states require that the person needing a support animal must have an ongoing relationship with the mental health professional. This means that the professional has been treating the individual over a period of time rather than just conducting a one-time evaluation.

Renewals and updates

ESA letters are typically valid for one year and may need to be renewed annually or as determined by the mental health professional's assessment of the individual's ongoing need for the animal.

Official letterhead

A legitimate ESA letter will be on the official letterhead of the medical professional’s practice. This letterhead should include the professional’s contact information, such as their address, phone number, and email.

Identifying fake ESA letters

With a trained eye, it can be easy to spot a fake ESA letter. Here are some examples of documents that are likely to be considered "fake" emotional support animal letters:

  • Online certifications or registries: Any website or online service that provides an ESA letter or "certification" in exchange for a fee, without requiring an in-person evaluation by a licensed mental health professional.
  • Letters from non-qualified individuals: Letters written by people who are not licensed to treat mental health issues, such as general practitioners, veterinarians, or online ESA providers.
  • No diagnosis: Documents that do not specify a diagnosed mental or emotional disability aren't considered legitimate.

The ESA rules landlords should know about

If a tenant gives you an ESA letter, there are specific rules and responsibilities for handling these letters and accommodating emotional support animals, including:

Requesting documentation

You have the right to ask for an ESA letter to verify a tenant’s need for an emotional support animal. You can also verify the authenticity of the letter by contacting the medical professional who issued it. Keep in mind that you cannot ask for specific details about the tenant's condition due to privacy laws.

No pet fees

You can't charge additional pet fees or deposits for an emotional support animal, but you can hold tenants responsible for any damage caused by the animal. If an ESA causes damage beyond normal wear and tear, you can deduct the cost of repairs from the tenant's security deposit or charge them for the damage.

Provide reasonable accommodation

Under the Fair Housing Act, you must provide reasonable accommodation for tenants with a legitimate ESA letter, even if your property has a no-pets policy. Reasonable accommodation means any modifications or adjustments to a housing policy, practice, or service that allows a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the rental property.

Maintaining confidentiality

You must maintain confidentiality in regards to the tenant’s disability and their need for an emotional support animal. You cannot disclose this information to other tenants or third parties.

Complying with local laws

You must comply with local and state laws regarding emotional support animals, as these laws may have additional requirements or protections beyond federal regulations. Make sure to stay updated about any specific rules or changes in your area to maintain compliance.

Some examples of state and local emotional support animal laws include:

  • Illinois: The Illinois Assistance Animal Integrity Act prohibits misrepresenting a pet as an assistance animal and outlines strict violations and penalties for fraudulently obtaining ESA documentation.
  • California: Under CA AB468, licensed healthcare professionals who issue ESA letters must meet specific criteria and have an established therapeutic relationship with the tenant.
  • Colorado: Landlords can require tenants to provide reasonable notice of their need for an assistance animal as a condition for providing the accommodation.
  • New York: New York City's human rights laws specify that landlords must allow emotional support animals as a reasonable accommodation, regardless of any "no pet" policies.

Consequences of fake documentation

Renters using a fake emotional support animal letter can face serious consequences in these facets of their lives:

  • Legal: Submitting a fake ESA letter is fraud and can lead to legal consequences, including fines and potential imprisonment. For example, in Florida, misrepresenting a dog as a service animal is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
  • Housing: Tenants who submit false information can face eviction for violating the terms of their lease agreement. Many lease agreements contain clauses that allow for eviction if a tenant provides false or misleading information.
  • Financial: Landlords may withhold security deposits or charge additional fees if they discover a tenant submitted a fraudulent emotional support animal letter.

Keep yourself from falling for a fake emotional support letter

By understanding the laws and proper processes around emotional support animals, housing providers can protect themselves from fraudulent attempts by applicants to bypass the rules. In the screening process, however, be sure to verify documentation through proper channels without violating privacy rights. And, perhaps most importantly, remember that while you can enforce reasonable restrictions, denying valid accommodation requests is unlawful.

To help the rental application process go as smoothly as possible, tenants with emotional support animals should make sure to provide legitimate documentation from a qualified professional who can attest to their disability-related need.

Resolving ESA matters comes down to good faith efforts by tenants to prove their needs through approved processes, and landlords making fair assessments based on facts. When each party does their due diligence, accommodating an ESA in a rental property can be a breeze!

Fake ESA letter FAQs

Can I write my own ESA letter?

No, a licensed mental health professional writes a valid ESA letter. It needs to certify your need for an emotional support animal based on a professional evaluation. If you write your own letter, it will not be accepted by landlords.

Are any online ESA letters valid?

An ESA letter acquired online can be valid if it's issued by a licensed mental health professional who conducts a proper evaluation. Make sure the online service provider connects you with a legitimate professional who thoroughly assesses you.

What does a real ESA letter look like?

A real ESA letter is issued by a licensed mental health professional. It includes their contact information and license details and states the tenant's need for an ESA for mental health reasons. It is written on official letterhead and specifies the professional's license type and number.

Important Note: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as legal, accounting, or tax advice, nor should it be used as a substitute for such services. Always consult your own legal, accounting, or tax counsel before taking any action based on this information.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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