The Hidden Disability Conundrum

Posted by Stephen Marshall on

bulldog resting         

         Earlier this week, we looked at a situation involving a property manager (Holly from The Calipari Resort) who was approached by a prospective resident who requested that her support animal be exempt from the community’s no-pet policy as an accommodation for her disability. The main thing that we learned was that a tenant with a disability is entitled to such accommodations as long as the accommodation does not (1) create an undue financial or administrative burden or (2) fundamentally alter the nature of the landlord’s business.

          This week, let’s consider a new situation. Noah is the property manager at Stoops Pavilion, an up-and-coming apartment community that has been thoroughly renovated since coming under new management. Since completing the renovations, the property had instituted a no-pet policy in its new leases and renewals.

          One morning, Noah is approached by Jennifer, a long-time resident of Stoops Pavilion who recently renewed her lease. Jennifer tells Noah that she needs a dog to help her cope with depression. Noah has known Jennifer for five years. In fact, Noah processed Jennifer’s rental application when he was a leasing agent. He’d never known Jennifer to be depressed. In fact, she was one of the most outgoing residents at Stoops Pavilion, a regular at the community pool and frequently involved in the social events hosted at the community. As a result, Noah was skeptical.

          Noah had been trained in Fair Housing issues, so he knew that residents with disabilities were allowed to have reasonable accommodations to community policies when needed as a result of their disability; he just didn’t know if Jennifer was really disabled. She sure didn’t seem disabled. Was he just supposed to take her at her word and let her have the dog? That didn’t make much sense to Noah, as he knew such a policy would allow any resident to claim a disability in order to have a pet.

          Noah contacted his local attorney, who confirmed Noah’s reasoning that he didn’t have to take the resident’s word for it that she was disabled or that she needed the accommodation. In fact, Noah learned that (1) if the resident’s disability is not known to him and is not obvious or (2) if the resident’s disability-related need for the accommodation is not known or obvious, he can require that the resident provide reliable information that verifies those facts.

          Noah scheduled another meeting with Jennifer and explained that he would be glad to allow her to have the dog if she could provide verification of her disability and her need for the dog as a result of her disability.  After the meeting, Noah sent a letter to Jennifer documenting the content of their meeting. The following week, Noah received a letter from Jennifer’s therapist stating that he had been treating Jennifer for six weeks for clinical depression and that it was his professional opinion that a dog would help Jennifer cope with her condition.

          Noah put a copy of the doctor’s letter in Jennifer’s resident file, notified his staff of the situation, then prepared a letter to Jennifer acknowledging their prior conversation and stating that, based on the recommendation of her therapist, she was welcomed to house a dog on the property. In the letter, Noah asked Jennifer to bring the dog to the management office so that they could take a picture of the dog for the file and so that she could sign an addendum to her lease acknowledging that she was allowed to have the dog and outlining Jennifer’s responsibilities for the care of the dog.

          In cases like these, a thorough knowledge of Fair Housing law can defuse a situation that could otherwise become volatile. Understanding your rights and obligations under Fair Housing law can save your property a lot of money, save you a lot of stress, and help to keep your residents happy.


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