Legal Hotline Spotlight

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Q: “We received a request from a tenant to have their pet fee reimbursed because the tenant says the pet is now a certified emotional support animal. The lease started in April of 2023. At that time, the animal was classified as a pet, and the tenant paid a pet deposit and has since been paying pent rent. According to the tenant, the pet was not an ESA until March of 2024, and the tenant has not provided any documentation about a disability and the need for an ESA. The lease ends at the end of April 2024, and the tenant has provided Notice to Vacate. If the animal is a valid ESA, are we required to refund her pet deposit and pet rent after having lived in the property as a pet and not an ESA for 11 months? Is the ESA certification (if valid) retroactive?”

A: Under the Virginia Fair Housing Law, a person with a disability “shall not be required to pay a pet fee or deposit or any additional rent to maintain an assistance animal in a dwelling …” (VA Code § 36-96.3:1.A.) However, if the person’s disability is not obvious or otherwise known, the landlord and/or property manager may request reliable documentation of the disability and disability related need for the animal. Here, it appears the disability is not obvious or known.

The landlord and/or property manager may request reliable documentation from someone with a therapeutic relationship with the tenant. If the documentation shows the disability dates back AND that the animal addressed a disability related need, then the landlord and/or property manager would likely need to refund any pet fees dating back to when the disability was identified.

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