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The Legal Department articles are not intended to serve as legal advice and are offered for educational purposes only. The information provided should not be used as a substitute for independent legal advice and it is not intended to address every situation that could potentially arise. Please be aware that laws, regulations and technical standards change over time. As a result, it is important to verify and update any reference or information that is provided in the article.
Letters from health care and mental health providers are generally requested to show that an animal provides a disability-related benefit to an individual. Therefore, it is becoming more common for clients to ask their therapists to provide such documentation. This article will provide a brief summary of the relevant laws and discussion of some legal and ethical issues for therapists to consider when responding to this type of request.
Ann Tran-Lien, JD
Emotional support animals can offer support and therapeutic benefits to individuals with mental or psychological disabilities. Federal and California laws recognize emotional support animals as reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities for purposes of housing and travel. Letters from health care and mental health providers are generally requested to show that the animal provides a disability-related benefit to the individual. Therefore, it is becoming more common for clients to ask their therapists to provide such documentation. This article will provide a brief summary of the relevant laws and discussion of some legal and ethical issues for therapists to consider when responding to this type of request.
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Assistance animals or emotional support animals are defined as animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or animals that provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.1 Emotional support animals perform many disability-related functions, including, but not limited to, providing emotional support to persons with disabilities who have a disability-related need for such support. Emotional support animals are not generally trained to perform specific tasks to assist persons with a psychiatric disability, but they must provide a disability-related benefit to such individuals.
It is important to note the distinction between emotional support animals and service animals. Service animals are defined as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”2
Emotional support animals are not covered by the same laws that apply specifically to service animals. ADA regulations require that all public entities and places of public accommodation provide modifications in their policies to accommodate for individuals who use service animals.3 These regulations do not provide the same protections for emotional support animals, but emotional support animals may be allowed to reside with individuals as reasonable accommodations for the individual’s disability.
Furthermore, federal regulations related to air travel require that service and emotional support animals be reasonably accommodated on all flights.4
Federal statutes, including the Fair Housing Act (FHA)5 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 19736 and the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA)7, protect the rights of people with disabilities to keep emotional support animals in their homes when the landlord has a no-pets policy and to travel on airlines with their emotional support animals. These laws require landlords and homeowner’s associations to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has stated that an exception to a no-pets policy would qualify as a reasonable accommodation.8
Additionally, California law also affords similar protection to people with disabilities. According to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), it is unlawful practice to refuse “to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when these accommodations may be necessary to afford a disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”9
In order to qualify for a reasonable accommodation under the FHA, Section 504, and ACAA, the individual must meet the statutory definition of “disability.” There are three broad categories of disabilities, which include: 1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, working, learning, dressing, etc.; 2) a record of having such an impairment; or 3) being regarded as having such an impairment.10
California law defines a mental disability to include “any mental or psychological disorder or condition ... that limits a major life activity.”11 “Major life activities” is to be broadly construed, and includes “physical, mental, and social activities and working.”12
A landlord or homeowner’s association may refuse to allow an emotional support animal if the animal poses a direct threat to others, would cause substantial physical harm to the property of others, imposes undue financial or administrative burden to the landlord, or fundamentally alters the nature of the services being provided by the landlord.13
If an individual is seeking reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal for housing, a landlord or homeowner’s association may require the individual to provide documentation of the individual’s disability and the disability-related need for the animal. The letter may be written by the individual’s primary care physician, social worker, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional and should state that the animal provides support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of an existing disability.14
An airline passenger who wishes to bring an emotional support animal onto a flight may be required to provide a letter that meets the following requirements:
Accordingly, mental health providers, including, but not limited to, licensed marriage and family therapists, licensed clinical social workers, licensed psychologists, and licensed professional clinical counselors, may write these letters on behalf of clients with disabilities seeking reasonable accommodations for their emotional support animals. The following are some issues to consider when presented with a request from a client who desires a letter seeking reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal.
Keep in mind that if you determine you are not competent to or comfortable with providing such a letter, you are not legally required to do so. However, you should consider the positive and negative ramifications, that writing the letter or declining to write the letter, may have on the therapeutic relationship. Understanding the relevant laws and carefully considering the clinical, legal and ethical implications can help you be better-equipped when responding to a client’s request for this form of documentation.
1Occupancy Requirements of Subsidized Multifamily Housing Programs, HUD, Glossary Rev-1 (2007)
228 C.F.R. § 36.104
3 28 C.F.R. § 36.302(c)(1)
4 68 Fed. Reg. 24875
5 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3631
6 29 U.S.C. § 794
7 49 U.S.C. § 41705;14 C.F.R. § 382
8 See Occupancy Requirements of Subsidized Multifamily Housing Programs, HUD, No. 4350.3, 2-44(C) (2007)
9 Cal. Gov. Code § 12927(c)(1), § 12955
10 24 C.F.R. § 8.3
11 Cal. Gov. Code § 12926(i)(1)
12 Cal. Gov. Code § 12926(i)(1)(C)
13 Occupancy Requirements of Subsidized Multifamily Housing Programs, HUD, No. 4350.3, 2-44(C) (2007)
14 Occupancy Requirements of Subsidized Multifamily Housing Programs, HUD, No. 4350.3, 3-29(B) (2007)
15 14 C.F.R. § 382.117(e); 68 Fed. Reg. 24875
16 CAMFT Code of Ethics Section 3.9