Doctor's note for cats?!

49 Replies

Hey everyone... so I have a bit of a lease term question. I just bought this four-plex and it's my first local property. We're managing it ourselves. We've literally had possession for 4 days. Tenant #2 comes up with some doctor's note stating he needs therapy cats and his pet deposit shall be waived. My first thought: "What the... NO."

The lease he has in place does not allow for pets of any kind, however, the last sentence says ""Pets" does not include animals trained to serve the handicapped, such as Seeing Eye dogs or Hearing dogs."

What do I do here? Is a therapy cat even a real thing? And cats aren't exactly "trained to serve the handicapped..." 

And oh by the way, his quote when handing my husband the "note" said "I have 2 cats."

Any advice is welcome!!! Thank you!

If this is a real "therapy" pet I believe there are certifications required for the actual pet.  That said, if the tenant meets the requirements to receive a note, and the pet is certified, trained, and insured as a therapy pet. Then and only then I think this would fall under the Fair Housing reasonable accommodations rules.

With that... I believe having "TWO" pets is excessive (even if they are certified).  Furthermore, if any of the other tenants in the building are allergic, you have reasonable means to deny this reasonable accommodation.

My suggested first step would be to question that pet's credentials.  If it all checks out, charge a "reasonable" but steep deposit for these pets.  Reasonable accommodations do not mean you have to put yourself at financial risk.

You can fatigue them by requiring certified copies of certificates, proof of animal immunization shots for X disease(s), frequent health inspections, frequent property inspection, etc.

Or. you can seek legal assistance in drafting a new or amended lease terms which address these issues without putting your investment asset in jeopardy of a ADA lawsuit. If you fail to act, you are also establishing a precedent that could be noticed, adopted and abused by other tenants.

Be very careful about this and read up on the laws, local, state and federal.  If they have a doctor's note that states these animals are necessary for the tenant's health issues, it could be very detrimental to challenge unless you can prove a hardship of your own, and even then could lead to a battle you don't want.   If the note just states that these are therapy cats owned by the tenant, I'd ask for clarification from the doctor stating that that they are actually necessary for tenant's illness or disability (I'm not a lawyer, but I believe you can ask if they are necessary or if they are both necessary, or if just one is sufficient unless it is already specified in the letter.  I'm certain you are not allowed to ask what the illness or disability is).  I'm not sure of your local or state specific laws, but in our state, service animals do not have to be registered or certified, and a doctor's note should be taken very seriously.  I would consult a lawyer before I challenged it.  

I have told an applicant "no" on a therapy dog before, but it was because she said she trained them before and was thinking of adopting another dog for that purpose, not that she needed them herself.  I told her, in that case, she would have to abide by my policy, well-trained family dog considered, no puppies, and I must meet the dog before lease signing and that one dog is written into the lease.  She said she couldn't do that as she hadn't adopted or trained it yet, so I said, Sorry.    

If they knew about the pet policy and it is in the lease and they brought a cat in anyway then I'm sure a judge will let you evict them if they do not get rid of the cat

I did a bit more digging after my initial response...

Not all pets require certification, however they do require written consent PRIOR to being allowed.  You can deny their initial request... and then the tenant has the opportunity to state a case (with reasoning through a licensed professional).

Per the PAWs website... The doctor's note has to have two important pieces of information:

1. It must state that you have a disability. The disability does not need to be identified.
2. It must state that it is the professional opinion of the provider that is it essential for you to have a service/support animal.

The note should make a clear case as to why the disability requires a service pet.  I would ask the tenant to provide a professional opinion as to why the tenant needs BOTH cats... you may request them to be neutered/spayed as well.

Furthermore, I discovered it is not allowable to charge a non-returnable deposit or additional monthly fee for pets in the property for medical reasons. I would still contest that you can protect your financial position through a greater refundable deposit.

100% in agreement with @Rick H.  ; make sure all of their certificates, immunizations, town registration (if applicable), neuter/spay records, etc... are in order!

I would just tell them not to flush the toilet.  It is equivalent to having cats according to Red Forman.

Thank you, all! The initial request was simply a letter to authorize the previous PM company to receive the letter. I am writing a letter to the tenant informing him that he needs to file a new form with his Center authorizing OUR company to receive said letter approving these cats. Once i have the alleged "cat permission slip" in hand, I can provide more details.

So @Mitch Coluzzi , I can still charge a deposit as long as it's "refundable?" Barring his kitties don't leave a lasting impression on the apartment?

Once I have the actual letter, I'll be able to see if those key words and tricky phrases are in there.

Sounds like he will need to specifically state in the letter that TWO cats are ESSENTIAL. 

What a headache.

Thank you all for the input!!

Be very careful about denying requests for accommodations for service animals. The Federal Fair Housing Act doesn't require the tenant to produce documentation before the discrimination claim arises. If an applicant calls you and states that s/he has a disability and has a doctor-prescribed service animal, and you deny that applicant outright without further consideration, you may be in trouble regardless of whether the applicant tries to escalate the matter with documentation.

FHRC v. Grybosky is an Ohio case that found a small-time landlord guilty of housing discrimination for telling fake applicant shills over the phone that she didn't accept therapy dogs. The cost to her, after all the other side's lawyers were paid? $100,000. 

http://www.oreia.com/Page.aspx?ID=Legislative-Upda...

I'm not a lawyer, but I believe federal laws state that you cannot charge any extra for a service or therapy dog than you would for a regular person without an animal.  So if you change your deposit policy for all units, that would probably be okay.  Charging more deposit for the one unit with the service animal is not likely to end well, no matter what you call the upcharge, refundable or not.  

@Account Closed  it is well within your rights as a landlord to protect your financial investment.  You can absolutely request an additional deposit when the circumstances of a tenant's occupancy change materially.  Just ensure you are applying these standards equally, in all units.

Applied to the Fair Housing Act, reasonable accommodations for handicap accessibility (wheel chair ramp, lowered counters, etc) can require a deposit, ensuring any property changes are reformed to previous state. 

Also, keep the common-good accommodation in mind... if other tenants in the building are/could be allergic to cat dander, by making an exemption to the No-Pet Policy for one tenant you are adversely compromising the health of another.

Not a lawyer by any means, but I'd be careful.  Therapy animals are NOT always seeing eye dogs or the like.  I know people with PTSD can be prescribed therapy animals that don't have special function beyond being a loving pet, this could conceivably be a cat.

I'd ask for an authorization note or some basic paperwork, but not push it too hard.

Plus, cats are usually pretty easy on apartments and you presumably have a security deposit already.

Originally posted by @Mitch Coluzzi:

@Account Closed  it is well within your rights as a landlord to protect your financial investment.  You can absolutely request an additional deposit when the circumstances of a tenant's occupancy change materially.  Just ensure you are applying these standards equally, in all units.

Applied to the Fair Housing Act, reasonable accommodations for handicap accessibility (wheel chair ramp, lowered counters, etc) can require a deposit, ensuring any property changes are reformed to previous state. 

Also, keep the common-good accommodation in mind... if other tenants in the building are/could be allergic to cat dander, by making an exemption to the No-Pet Policy for one tenant you are adversely compromising the health of another.

 WOAH! This is absolutely wrong! Landlords cannot charge disabled people extra due to their condition! This includes requiring disabled people to pay extra deposits. Service animals are not considered "pets" under the statute and landlords may not charge deposits for them.

For pets specifically: http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/documents/huddoc?i...

For all disabilities, no fees or deposits may be charged for reasonable accommodations: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/huddojstat...

@Christian Carson , your post raises another questions... in your link "for pets specifically," I see this:

The Department of Justice's (DOT) amendments to its regulations' for Titles II and III of the ADA limit the definition of "service animal" under the ADA to include only dogs, and further define "service animal" to exclude emotional support animals.

This makes me think cats aren't covered as a service animal? What a HUGELY GRAY AREA.

What I read agrees with what @Christian Carson  

is saying, you can't charge anything addl for a therapy animal, refundable or not. However, if there is damage from the animal when they leave, then you can charge them for the damage the animal created.

Originally posted by @J V.:

Plus, cats are usually pretty easy on apartments and you presumably have a security deposit already.

After de-catting a house and more than one apartment, I can attest to the fact that cats can certainly cause a great amount of damage. Especially if they spray to mark their territory. They also can scratch to high heaven on door frames, carpets and other places. Excrement needs to be discreetly taken care of on a regular basis. 

The key to allowing cats, or any pet, is to make sure the tenant is a RESPONSIBLE PET OWNER. You can find information about this online at places such as the ASPCA and Humane Society websites. Responsible pet owners take care of their pets in a manner that causes little or no damage to property. The challenge is in vetting tenants well to sort out the responsible pet owners from those who are not. Also, see if your property lends itself well to keeping an animal. The type of home (SFH,MFH,HOA involvement, etc.) and the configuration of the property (adequate space for the needs of the animal) will factor in.

I don't mind cats. Or dogs for that matter. Our biggest issue is that my husband does all the updating, re-carpeting, remodeling, cleaning, etc. of the apartments once the tenants are moved out. He is allergic to cats, so when he's rolling up carpet and cleaning out air-filters, I'd hate to find out he had some sort of wild allergy attack because this tenant weaseled his way out of the paragraph prohibiting pets. We specifically have a no pet policy for this reason. We figured we couldn't say sure you can have dogs, but no cats. If it's a legitimate claim, however, I suppose we'll have to farm out the cleaning to another company, which would cost us unnecessary funds.

All that being said, I'd rather pay someone else to do the cleaning than face a lawsuit.

@Christian Carson  is correct that additional deposits are not permitted. 

Perhaps @Mitch Coluzzi  was thinking along the lines of money escrowed to restore things back to original condition when a reasonable accommodation has been made; see link:

http://www.accessiblehousing.org/rights/modificati...

In any case, this sort of therapy animal just might fall under emotional support animal, and Fair Housing considers those to be a service animal. @Marcia Maynard  has some good insight on how to approach this. 

Originally posted by @Rebecca Olson:

... I suppose we'll have to farm out the cleaning to another company, which would cost us unnecessary funds.

All that being said, I'd rather pay someone else to do the cleaning than face a lawsuit.

That cleaning is supposed to be paid from the tenant security deposit, so it shouldn't cost you until the deposit amount has been exceeded. 

@Account Closed  Would you mind sharing that link again to the position written by your attorney friend?  Thanks!

I stand corrected on the ability to request a deposit for a service animal or assistance animals of any sort (however, they are separately classified).   @Christian Carson is absolutely right in that regards per the posted HUD articles. Thanks for the articles and your clarification.

In your opinion, if a tenant offers up a deposit for the service animal, is there any violation of the laws?

@Steve Babiak  that is what I was aiming towards with my second blurb.  Thanks for restating it, better!

As an advocate for folks in my housing program, I've gone to war with landlords over pet policies a couple times before (both flagrant instances of discrimination, not in the same ballpark as this) so I've read the HUD rules on this stuff more than a few times.

According to HUD, Service animals (usually dogs) and companion/therapy animals (can be just about any pet) are indistinguishable according to Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Training and task oriented function (the things that distinguish a Service Dog from other forms of support animals) are not necessary for the animal/tenant to be covered under these protections. The landlord can require documentation for each animal, but cannot inquire as to the disability or its severity. Basically, if they have a doctor's note stating that they require said animal due to a disability, you can't tell them no, unless:

- There is reliable objective evidence that the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by a reasonable accommodation;

- There is reliable objective evidence that the animal would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others;

- The presence of the assistance animal would pose an undue financial and administrative burden to the provider; or

- The presence of the assistance animal would fundamentally alter the nature of the provider's services.

Unfortunately, deposits or pet surcharges are not allowed for animals covered by these laws.

Now, all this said, landlords in my area usually just deny or evict folks with doctor's noted pets anyway and I've never seen someone bring suit. Both of the landlords I worked with backed down after they sought legal advice, but that really only happened because I was involved. My clients would have either given up the animal or gone homeless if they were on their own. 

I can't find the handbook online that I used at the time, but this handbook for public housing uses the same language almost verbatim to the handbook I used, starts at page 178: http://www.hud.gov/offices/pih/programs/ph/rhiip/p...

My advice? Be firm in requiring proper documentation, but there's not much you can do after than until you can demonstrate that other tenants are negatively affected (ie allergic and having symptoms) or the animals are doing damage to the apartment. :-(

@Mitch Coluzzi  I didn't mean to clobber you, but I wanted to make absolutely sure that everyone has the right information. :)

@Bradley Bogdan  check out that link I posted earlier regarding FHRC v. Grybosky. That was a case of a positively honest mistake that led an old lady to be hit in $100k in fines and attorney's fees. Some fair housing orgs in Ohio make a business out of baiting landlords into discrimination violations through the use of "testers", and then try to extort settlements out of them.

Here is a link to another BP thread that covers a number of the issues being discussed here, and it includes a link (as requested here by @Marcia Maynard   ) to an article by a PA attorney named Brad Dornish where he litigated matters regarding supposed service animals:

http://www.biggerpockets.com/forums/52/topics/1419...

Lots of good reading there including the links therein. 

After you accept a tenant and their service/support animal, you will want to keep up on your inspections, as you would for any tenant. Even though you can not charge an extra security deposit, pet rent or fee for the animal, you certainly can charge for damages as they occur.  Do not wait for move-out and hope the normal security deposit will be enough, it rarely is.

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