Have you ever heard of HUD’s suggested 10-day form return policy? Is this a hard and fast rule or just a best practice? A recent case focuses on the intricacies of handling lease applications and the form requirements when accommodating requests for emotional support animals (ESAs).
In this intriguing case, we examine the challenges a property management team faced when an army veteran applied to rent an apartment and requested an accommodation for his ESA, a 70-pound Doberman Pinscher, since the property’s existing pet policy imposed a weight limit of 25 pounds. The applicant provided the property with a letter from his VA psychiatrist, but it was over a year old, leading the property to request additional verification.
Management allegedly imposed a strict deadline of 10 days to receive the completed verification form; however, the deadline could not be met due to the verifier being unavailable during that time. The veteran, anticipating a denial of his request, withdrew his application and subsequently filed a complaint with HUD, which found probable cause for a violation.
The Defendants in this case are actively contesting the allegations and have presented several defenses. First, they have cited the 2020 HUD Guidance on Assistance Animals, which suggests that requests for assistance animals should ideally be processed within a 10-day period, thus justifying the deadline they imposed. Additionally, the Defendants point to evidence suggesting a change in the Plaintiff’s medical condition since the time the original VA letter was issued. Furthermore, there are allegations that the Plaintiff instructed his verifier to refrain from completing the Verification Form, adding another layer of complexity to the case.
Applicable HUD Guidelines and Fair Housing Best Practices
An essential aspect of this case is understanding HUD guidelines. While HUD suggests a 10-day turnaround to verify assistance animal requests as a best practice to encourage timely responses, this is not a legal requirement. The misconception that these guidelines are rigid can lead to unnecessary legal complications.
Another crucial point is the role of verification. A housing provider has the right to verify that the individual is disabled and has a (current) existing need for the accommodation being requested. If the verification provided is dated and may not present current information, the housing provider may want to request an updated verification. However, determining how and when to draw that line is fact-specific and it may be a good idea to consult with an attorney prior to making such a decision.
This case highlights the importance of procedures, while still maintaining flexibility when it may be appropriate. For example, while companies should have a general time period in which they aim to process requests, if a verifier has a legitimate reason for delaying his/her response, it may be appropriate to hold off on a decision until he/she can respond to verification questions. This case also underscores why understanding legal obligations, maintaining effective communication, and ensuring regular staff training on fair housing laws and HUD guidelines is crucial for property management.
It also serves as a reminder of the delicate balance property managers must maintain between adhering to policies and being responsive to individual tenant needs, especially in sensitive situations involving ESAs. Staying informed and adaptable is critical to ensuring compliance with fair housing laws while providing fair and reasonable accommodation to all tenants.