In a long-anticipated decision, the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (THRC) found documentation purchased from the website CertaPet.com was unreliable and did not establish a disability or the disability-related need for an emotional support animal (ESA).
The case began when a Nashville resident requested an accommodation to allow her Shih Tzu puppy to live at her apartment complex as an ESA.
The landlord allowed pets, but the resident did not want to pay the $500 deposit. In support of her disability and need for the animal, the resident provided a letter from Rhea Hill, an Atlanta therapist with a Tennessee license.
Upon review of the letter, it was clear the letter had been purchased from the website CertaPet.com. Although the letter did not identify CertaPet.com, there was a Texas address at the bottom of the letter which was connected to the website. The Property Manager was also familiar with the therapist because she had received and denied other documentation from the same therapist.
After looking over the letter, the Property Manager contacted the resident and told her the letter was not considered reliable because it was purchased from a website. The resident did not deny she had purchased the letter but believed it was sufficient to establish her disability and need for the animal. The Property Manager disagreed and allowed the resident additional time to obtain reliable documentation. The resident refused to provide additional documentation and instead, filed a fair housing complaint with the THRC.
The THRC investigated the complaint. According to the THRC’s findings, the resident again acknowledged the letter was purchased through the CertaPet.com website. The resident completed an on-line form and spent 30 minutes on a call with Rhea Hill. The telephone conversation consisted of discussing the resident’s answers on the pre-screening form. There was no face-to-face interaction and the therapist did not request any medical documentation. There was also no evidence of a follow-up visit.
The THRC found the evidence suggested the therapist lacked the personal knowledge of the resident’s condition necessary to be able to determine whether she had a disability or a disability-related need for the ESA. As such, the documentation was not considered reliable. In addition, the Property Manager never denied the ESA. She never threatened to charge the resident a pet deposit or evict her if she did not pay. Instead, the Property Manager engaged in the interactive process and asked for additional information. And finally, the Property Manager had other ESA requests which had been granted after residents provided reliable documentation.
The THRC found there was no evidence of discrimination. Complaint dismissed.
This case is support for landlords attempting to differentiate between residents who truly need an ESA and those who simply do not want to pay a deposit. Tennessee landlords can now be more confident to ask for additional information when making an ESA decision.