For years, the apartment rental industry in Virginia has been frustrated by tenants it thinks are faking disability certifications to qualify their pets as emotional support animals and get around lease restrictions.
About a month ago, they finally won a legal victory when state regulators fined a licensed professional counselor $1,000 after determining he issued a disability certification based solely on a brief form submitted online.
It’s far from an earth-shattering crackdown, but the Virginia Apartment Management Association says it represents an important milestone in its effort to fight back against online companies that charge a few hundred bucks to connect people with licensed counselors willing to issue a disability certification based on the results of a quick survey.
“It’s just so rampant on the internet,” said Patrick McClould, the organization’s president.
Rental companies aren’t the only businesses flummoxed by the proliferation of the emotional support animals, which aren’t required to have any specific training. Airlines, subject to their own regulations, have contended with passengers requesting accommodations for animals ranging from dogs and cats to squirrels and peacocks.
To demonstrate how lax the online assessments are, McCloud said one of his employees got her pet rabbit certified as emotional support animal. “In three days, she had a letter saying she’s disabled,” he said.
That was back in 2017, and the anecdote helped make the case for legislation that requires a “therapeutic relationship” between a patient and a counselor providing disability verifications – in other words, they can’t base them on short surveys filled out online.
Rental companies say they’re happy to make accommodations for people with legitimate disabilities, but their suspicions are aroused when, for example, a leasing agent discovers an unpermitted dog in a unit and a few days later, the tenant produces a disability certification justifying the presence of the animal.
That’s what happened in the Newport News case in which Oregon-based counselor Sherwood Harrison III was formally reprimanded and fined following an investigation by the state board of counseling.
A spokeswoman for the board said it was the first and only case of its kind in the state.
Attempts to reach Harrison for comment were unsuccessful, but the board ruled that he had issued two disability certifications “based on a brief self-assessment completed online” and without maintaining adequate clinical records.
“You can’t call it counseling if all they did was fill out a survey online,” McCloud said.