By Jedidiah McKeehan
A recent trend in America is the use of animals in a medically prescribed way for emotional purposes. Medical research has determined that animals can provide a calming effect on individuals. True, these animals (usually dogs, but I suppose it could be any animal), do provide a real and noticeable difference on individuals dealing with medical issues.
Some juvenile courthouses even have emotional support animals walk around the waiting area and spend time with children to provide both a distraction and to calm them down, given the stressful situation these children find themselves in.
These emotional support animals are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the same way that assistance dogs for the blind are. What does that mean having pets and animals while you are in a landlord-tenant relationship? That means that if a renter has an actual, medically prescribed, emotional support animal, then the landlord has to allow them to have that animal in the property and cannot evict them for having that animal. Further, they cannot charge them a pet deposit for having the emotional support animal on the rented property.
Now, the cynics in all of us may be saying, “Really? An emotional support dog is the same as a seeing-eye dog?” Under the ADA, yes. I do not want to disparage those individuals who actually need and benefit from an emotional support animal, but unfortunately, this new designation is prone to abuse.
First, the person renting and desiring to have an emotional support dog on the property that they rent needs to document that they need an emotional support animal, typically to aid with a diagnosis like depression, which is a much more subjective diagnosis than blindness.
Second, the person who states that the animal is medically necessary for emotional support purposes need not be a doctor. The ADA and Tennessee Code state only that a “healthcare provider,” so potentially a psychiatrist or other medical professional can provide the documentation stating that an animal is necessary for emotional support purposes.
Third, while seeing-eye dogs have specific training to become assistance animals, emotional support animals do not. A healthcare provider may just state, “you have a pit bull that calms you down that you already own? Okay, the pit bull is your emotional support animal and its medically necessary that you have him live with you.”
So, as you can see, while there will be legitimate cases where a support animal is needed, the system is rife with possibilities for abuse, which could be a nightmare for a landlord with a strict “no pets” policy.
Does the landlord have any rights at all to combat this? Mostly no. Tennessee Code Annotated section 66-28-406 went in to effect in on July 1, 2019, and it tries to help out the landlords if there is found be abuse of the “emotional support” designation, by stating that landlords can evict tenants if they find that falsified documentation about an animal being for emotional support purposes. A little help there, but not much. If you are a landlord, you can only hope that tenants do not abuse this ADA designation to circumvent a “no pet” policy.
Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties. He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit attorney-knoxville.com for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.