Make sure ‘companion animal’ request is legit

Rent it Right

Q: One of my tenants has asked for permission to keep a dog as a "companion animal." He gave me a letter from his doctor, but it’s so poorly written that I suspect it’s fake, even though it’s on a letterhead. This guy also seems perfectly normal to me. How can I challenge the legitimacy of this letter without getting into legal trouble? –William D.

A: When a tenant claims to have a disability and asks for special treatment, landlords are within their rights to ask for documentation of two things: that the tenant legally qualifies as a person with a disability, and that the accommodation sought will enable the tenant to live safely and comfortably in the rental.

(If the tenant’s disability and need for the accommodation are obvious — for example, the tenant uses a wheelchair that won’t fit through a doorway — then landlords should skip the request for proof.)

In the past, this documentation almost always took the form of a letter from a doctor. In recent years, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has broadened the acceptable sources of confirmation to include, for example, "third-party professionals." Most often, this term is understood to mean medical professionals.

Landlords are not forbidden from using their common sense when evaluating the documentation a tenant provides. First, however, keep in mind that your impressions of your tenant as "normal" must be put aside. The way this person appears to you is irrelevant. The only evidence you can rely on is what the tenant’s doctor, therapist or other professional provides.

It’s not difficult to concoct fake letterhead and write a letter purporting to be from a doctor. But there’s an easy way to check, first, that this doctor really exists. Doctors are licensed in every state, and the state licensing board will be able to tell you whether someone with this name is licensed.

Most of the time, all you need do is enter the name and see if there’s a match in the licensing board’s website database. If there’s no match, there’s no such doctor and you’ve got your answer.

But what if a doctor by that name exists in your state, and you think the letter-writer simply used his or her name? Here you must tread carefully, because you do not want to be seen as impeding your tenant’s request or harassing your tenant. Don’t demand another letter or ask to speak personally with the doctor.

It may be reasonable, however, to call the doctor’s office, explain who you are and why you are calling, and simply ask for confirmation that the doctor wrote the letter.

Even if the letter is legitimate, you may run up against an objection based on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the federal law that protects the privacy of medical information. In that event, consider writing a letter to the doctor, attaching a copy of the letter the tenant provided, and ask for confirmation that the doctor wrote the letter.

If the letter is legit, the doctor should have no problem vouching for its accuracy. But if you’ve uncovered a scam, you can be sure you’ll hear about it, and that the doctor — whose identity has been stolen, after all — will be getting in touch with the authorities to look into your tenant.

Q: When I worked in the U.S., I had an apartment with a year’s lease, and I got a $200 "concession" when I signed up. Halfway through the lease, my company in Germany transferred me back home, and I had to break the lease. I found a new tenant to take over right away, and the management company approved and signed her up — for a whole year.

Now the company is telling me that it will deduct the concession from my deposit, because I didn’t finish the entire lease term. But the company got a new tenant, and for an additional six months! This doesn’t seem fair. –Gertrude K.

A: On first blush, it doesn’t seem fair at all. Although you broke the lease, you did the legwork to find an acceptable replacement, saving the management company the time and expense of advertising, showing and handling the turnover. In addition, the company got an extra six months of continual renting.

The company may have incurred some screening expenses in connection with verifying that your offered replacement was appropriate, but that’s about it. If challenged, it would probably justify the concession claw-back on that basis.

But the real question is: What did the lease clause say with respect to the concession? If it specified that the concession would be rescinded upon the tenant’s unjustified departure, you might be out of luck right there.

A careful tenant in your situation and faced with such a clause would ask management to forgo the claw-back in light of your re-renting success, and would obtain a written agreement to do so. But it doesn’t sound like you followed that route.

Though it’s a long shot, the concession itself may have been improperly described in the first place. In Illinois, for example, any rent concessions must be described in the lease, in letters not less than one-half inch in height, consisting of the words "Concession Granted," including a memorandum on the margin or across the face of the lease stating the amount or extent and nature of each such concession.

Failure to comply is a misdemeanor in Illinois (765 Ill. Comp. Stat. 730/3).

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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