How do you verify people’s need for emotional support animals? Bill sets out guidelines

How do you verify people’s need for emotional support animals? Bill sets out guidelines
Roxann Hamilton has trained service dogs since 1988. One of her dogs, Baby, serves as both a service dog and emotional support animal for Hamilton, who has post-traumatic stress disorder.

As emotional support animals have become more common across the country, so too have websites offering to provide documentation of need for such animals.

Several websites offer a letter from a professional after a fee is paid. One such site offers a letter after a five-minute questionnaire and “15-minute licensed mental health professional online consultation.” “No more airline or housing pet fees or restrictions,” another site says in listing the benefits of the letter it provides.

A bill in the Nebraska Legislature would allow landlords to require verification from a mental health professional who is licensed in Nebraska.

Under the federal Fair Housing Act, landlords are required to provide a reasonable accommodation, and waive pet fees, for renters with emotional support animals. According to Housing and Urban Development guidelines, the landlord may ask for documentation of disability and need for an emotional support animal from a mental health professional, if the disability is not obvious, like depression or anxiety.

Under Legislative Bill 553, introduced by Sen. Robert Clements, landlords would be allowed to require verification from a mental health professional who is licensed in Nebraska and whose services are not limited solely to providing such verification. The Judiciary Committee will hear his bill Wednesday.

Emotional support animals are different from service animals, which are trained to perform a specific task. A cat or puppy could not be a service animal but could be an emotional support animal.

An attorney who helped craft the bill, Gene Eckel, said LB 553 focuses only on individuals who use these online services to get a letter that verifies their need for an emotional support animal.

“They can come back to the landlord and say, ‘Hey, my pet is an assistance animal, so now I don’t have to pay a (pet fee),’ ” Eckel said.

Eckel, who is on the board of directors of the Apartment Association of Nebraska, said landlords usually grant the accommodation, rather than risk a fair housing complaint.

The sites make an already confusing legal landscape more confusing, said Roxann Hamilton of Bellevue, who educates and advocates for emotional support animal and service dog owners. But they shouldn’t be conflated with remote counseling or other services that Nebraskans use, she said.

Disability Rights of Nebraska attorney Stephany Maness said she’s never encountered someone in a dispute who used such a service.

“I think most of the time people are coming in from their therapist or mental health professionals,” Eckel said. “Those are probably the legitimate ones. … It seems to be a growing trend across the nation.”

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