By SARAH ATWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING – University housing officials and off-campus landlords are alarmed about the influx of fake certification letters for emotional support animals.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, would penalize people who sell online certificates, and protect landlords from fraudulent claims.
Emotional support animals are an animal that qualifies as a reasonable accommodation that is necessary for a person with a disability to use and enjoy a residential property, according to the U.S. Fair Housing Act.
To have one at a university or a rental property, people need documentation from a health care provider explaining the need, said Karlene Lehman, a director for the Property Managers Association of Michigan, based in Okemos. But there has been a rise in people getting fake certificates online, she said.
“Now, someone can go online and fill out a survey to get a certificate,” Lehman said. “Even if the person has never seen a doctor or a therapist, they can enter their email address and soon a certificate is in their inbox. But these people are getting duped. People are spending up to $200 on a certificate that a health care provider would not charge for.”
Landlords do not have to accept letters that are not valid under U.S. Housing and Urban Development guidelines, she said. But it’s a fine line between questioning the validity of someone’s verification and people feeling like you are questioning their disability, she said.
“The bill does not penalize the person with the false certificate, but the vendor who sold it to them,” Lehman said. “The hope is that this will deter people from getting fake certificates.”
The legislation would help protect people with legitimate documentation of a mental, emotional, or psychiatric need for an emotional support animal, she said.
“I believe emotional support animals are a valid form of therapy,” Lehman said.
According to Lehman, landlords cannot charge for an emotional support animal. If an apartment complex requires a down payment for pets and pet rent, people might try to get a fake certificate to avoid these charges.
Michael Rutledge, the manager of the emotional support animal verification process at Northern Michigan University, agrees.
“People take advantage of people who want to register their animals as emotional support animals,” Rutledge said. “But there’s no such thing as a ‘national support animal registry,’ and any website claiming this is lying.”
Northern does have a few protections against false certificates. Doctors verifying the animal must provide their license number, Rutledge said.
“The health of the animal is also a concern,” he said. “These might be animals who previously lived their whole lives in a house with a backyard, and now live in a dorm. Emotional support animals don’t need to be trained, and the animal might suffer in these new surroundings they were not prepared for.”
There have been disruptive animals at Northern. The more animals in a place means more chances there could be a problem, Rutledge said. Students without the need for an animal also must be comfortable in their surroundings.
Other universities report an increase in the requests for emotional support animals and fake verifications.
“We try to talk to the student immediately when we suspect illegitimate documentation,” said Cherise M. Frost, the interim director of disability at Wayne State University.
“We try to handle the situation very carefully. We’re the student’s advocates, and we want them to have everything they need to succeed. However, we do have to follow certain guidelines,” Frost said.
The increased number of emotional support animals hasn’t been much of a problem, Frost said. There was an incident where a couple of dogs decided they didn’t like each other, but nothing was too disruptive.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights opposes the bill, citing concerns about deviating from federal guidelines.
“We don’t want to confuse people by making these changes,” said Jerome Reide, the department’s legislative liaison.
The bill would require a provider-patient relationship of 30 days before receiving certification. The provider would need access to the patient’s medical records and monitor the effectiveness of the emotional support animal.
“Thirty days might be too long for a patient to wait for a certificate,” Reide said.
“Some people might not have providers they see regularly, which means they’ll have to go to someone new, and this might take time. For people with mental or psychiatric disabilities who need an emotional support animal, this could be devastating,” he said.