Tenants requiring the assistance of a service or emotional support animal would be required to provide specific documentation under a bill heard by members of the Judiciary Committee Feb. 4.
Under LB309, sponsored by Elmwood Sen. Robert Clements, a landlord could require potential tenants with disabilities who require use of a support animal to provide documentation from a health care provider — who has a personal relationship with the potential tenant — detailing the disability, the person’s disability-related need for a support animal and the kind of support the animal provides.
Clements said many tenants with a legitimate disability, not knowing the requirements of state and federal housing laws, are lured into purchasing worthless and unnecessary online documentation for assistance animals.
“Other individuals purchase online documentation to fraudulently circumvent landlord pet restrictions and rental fees, misrepresenting their pet as an assistance animal,” he said. “This hurts truly disabled applicants and creates suspicion of the disabled and housing providers alike.”
The bill would make it unlawful for a person to misrepresent a disability or related need for a support animal, either to a health care provider or potential landlord. Fraudulently fitting an animal with a harness, collar, vest or sign implying its status as a service animal also would be prohibited.
Gene Eckel, representing the Nebraska Association of Commercial Property Owners and the Apartment Association of Nebraska, spoke in support of the bill. He said an entire “cottage industry” around providing falsified service animal documentation has worsened the problem in recent years.
“We want to protect those with a legitimate need to ensure that they’re not overshadowed by many who are just looking to get around the restrictions on pets, pet deposits and pet rent,” Eckel said.
Opposing the bill was Brad Meurrens of Disability Rights Nebraska. Competing definitions and guidelines at the federal level can create legitimate confusion for tenants, he said.
“I would caution framing this issue solely as a problem created by selfish people,” Meurrens said. “The use of unqualified animals as service animals may not be a deliberate act, but instead a problem created by misunderstood definitions, differences between civil rights laws and misinformation by the medical community.”
LB309 also would prohibit a health care provider from knowingly providing fraudulent documentation of a disability or related need for a service animal, as well as anyone other than a health care provider who would provide such documentation.
Violation of the bill’s provisions would be considered a Class III misdemeanor for a first offense, punishable by up to three months imprisonment, a $500 fine or both. Subsequent offenses would be considered a Class II misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months imprisonment, a $1,000 fine or both.
Taylor Christopher, a student attorney, also opposed LB309. Diagnosing a nonvisible disability, she said, is a more subjective process than diagnosing a visible disability. The bill’s penalties could hinder health care relationships, she said.
“People with disabilities should receive the care they need and there should be no risk of that care being denied because of a fear of professional sanctions,” Christopher said.
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.