Herring Strikes Blow for Emotional Support Animals

Phoebe, the Bacon family emotional support cat, provides companionship and comfort — in sum, helps us maintain a “happier more full life” — during the COVID-19 shut-in.

by James A. Bacon

Attorney General Mark Herring has issued a press release touting his victory in compelling a Pulaski County townhouse community to accommodate a couple with an emotional support animal.

“Virginians with disabilities have the right to live with an assistance animal, especially if that assistance animal helps them live happier, more full lives — assistance animals are not pets and cannot be subject to fees or breed and weight restrictions like other pets can be,” said Herring. “Assistance animals … are often the best way for individuals with debilitating symptoms caused by various mental or physical impairments to substantial improve their quality of life.”

Here are the particulars of the case, as recounted in the press release. The couple, Michael and Charlene Butler, provided “clinical verification” of the need to bring Charlene’s assistance dog to live with them in the Unique Deerfield Village Townhomes Complex. The property managers imposed weight limits and pet deposit fees on the assistance animal.

When the Butlers “elevated their request” — I’m not sure what the press release means by that — the property owner, Jeffrey Stump, threatened eviction, saying, “It has come to my attention that you have a pet residing in your unit. It makes no difference that it is an emotional support dog. It is still a pet.” Stump tried to evict the Butlers, who prevailed in that court case and then proceeded to file a complaint alleging housing discrimination.

In the resulting settlement, in which Herring’s Office of Civil Rights assisted the Butlers, Stump must admit emotional support animals to his apartment complex, pay the Butlers $30,000 in compensation, and, to add insult to injury, attend fair housing training annually for three years. 

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll confess to being none too sympathetic to the Butlers or to the concept of “emotional support animals” in general. Service dogs for people who are blind or deaf, as provided for in Virginia law? No problem. But “emotional support”? What does that even mean? Any pet can be an emotional support animal. (See photo of Phoebe Bacon above.) Any person can claim that their “emotional support animal” provides relief from depression, amxiety, stress, loneliness or whatever malady some therapist is willing to call a mental illness.

An entire online industry has popped up to provide pet owners “consultations” and letters of certifications. Take CertaPet, for example. Its home page describes its “fast, simple and secure” process.

Step 1: A five-minute screening test to find out if you qualify for an ESA letter.
Step 2: Speak to a “licensed” mental health therapist. The meeting takes only 15 to 30 minutes.
Step 3: Get your ESA letter. “That’s all it takes for you to print your own letter, or have one shipped to you.”

Here’s what one happy customer, Rob S., had to say:

The process was extremely easy, fast and convenient. Once approved I had my letter in a couple of days in my mailbox and same day in my email. I’m soo glad I have my pet as an emotional support animal. Now I don’t have to worry about being separated from him ever!

In other words, anyone can get a “certified” letter.

The Herring press release is fuzzy on the details. But it seems that the landlord did not reject the Butlers outright initially. Rather, apartment mangers “imposed weight limits and pet deposit fees.” What’s wrong with that? There is a reason landlords impose pet deposit fees — it’s that animals can cause damage. They scratch. They shed hair. The urinate and defecate. If landlords don’t charge pet or “support animal” owners for damage caused by their pets, they will have to raise damage deposits for everyone, including non-pet owners. Charging an extra fee does seem not the least bit unreasonable to me.

At some point the situation escalated, and Stump tried to evict the butlers. An emotional support dog, he said, “is still a pet.”

Now, thanks to Herring, Stump has been duly humbled and put in his place. Not only must he accommodate the Butlers, he’s $30,000 poorer (over and above legal fees), and he must endure the added hell of attending fair housing training once a year for three years.

I haven’t even heard the landlord’s side of the story, but I’ll tell you this. Based on Herring’s version, I’ll side with Stump.