What are the rules for landlords and tenants when it comes to emotional support animals?
For landlords there are important rules to follow to avoid running afoul with Wisconsin and Federal Discrimination laws.
An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is defined in Wis. Stat. §106.50 as “an animal that provides emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship for an individual but that is not trained to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” That means that an ESA does not need any specific training in order to qualify under this statute.
In general ESAs are protected and landlords cannot discriminate against tenants with ESAs and must provide reasonable accommodations for owners of ESAs during the application process, when deciding on fees or in an eviction. The ESA must be necessary to afford the tenant the equal opportunity to use the dwelling and there needs to be a connection between the disability of the tenant and the accommodation the ESA provides.
Landlords can request the tenant seeking the accommodation to submit “reliable documentation” from a licensed health professional that shows (1) the tenant has a disability and (2) the related need for the ESA. If the disability and the need for the ESA are readily apparent or already known by the landlord, the landlord should not require the tenant to provide this documentation because that could be considered harassment.
Landlords can follow-up with the listed licensed health professional to ensure the professional is real and licensed. The health professional will not be able to discuss the tenant’s health with the landlord without violating HIPPA. However, it is likely that if the tenant supplies the landlord with a letter, the health professional will be willing to acknowledge they wrote a letter for the client. This should give the landlord comfort in knowing that the tenant is likely not lying.
If the tenant can provide the necessary paperwork, landlords cannot refuse housing, impose fines, evict or harass the tenant as a result of the ESA and must provide reasonable accommodations. The most common accommodations are (1) allowing the tenant to live with an ESA where the landlord normally has a no-pets policy or (2) waiving any pet deposit or other pet related fee.
From the legal perspective, ESAs are not “pets” and are closer to medical devices that the tenant needs in order to have an equal opportunity to enjoy the housing. This is an important distinction and can help landlords justify letting one tenant have an ESA but not allowing another tenant to have a pet.
Even though the tenant cannot be forced to pay a deposit or fee for having the ESA in the dwelling, the tenant is still liable “for sanitation with respect to, and damage to the premises caused by the [ESA].” This means that a landlord does not need to take on any extra liability when it comes to the ESA. Upon termination of the lease, the landlord should check for any sanitation issues with or damage to the property, because those are things that the tenant is responsible for and for which the tenant cannot receive accommodations.