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Service Animals in the Workplace - Don't Make Decisions in the Blind

An employee who has 20/20 vision asks to bring a service animal—a “seeing eye dog”—into work. Must you permit the employee to do so? You might feel that this is the sort of question for which you don’t need to consult with an attorney. The answer is obviously, “No,” right? What if the employee also trains service animals on the side? Must you allow the employee to bring the animal in to work? The answer might surprise you.

West Virginia’s “White Cane Law provides that every person who is blind has the right to be accompanied by a service animal in public places, including places of employment. This makes sense, but it certainly doesn’t require that employers allow those who are not blind to bring animals to work. But the Legislature amended the statute in 2002 to add the following language: “The rights, privileges and responsibilities provided by this section also apply to any person who is certified as a trainer of a service animal while he or she is engaged in the training.” Does this change your answer to the first question?

Every lawyers’ favorite answer is, “It depends,” and for good reason. So many facts and variables in any situation may change the outcome. That’s certainly the case in this hypothetical. An employer would be hard pressed to deny a blind employee the right to bring a service animal to work. And if a blind employee has the right to bring a service animal to work, then that right, according to the statute, also applies to a person who is certified as a trainer of service animals while that person is engaged in the training.

So now we need further facts in order to decide whether you must permit the employee to bring the service animal to work. Is the employee certified as a trainer? Will the employee be “engaged in the training” while at work? What does this entail, and how can the employee do his or her work for you while also working the second job—training the service animal? What at first seemed to be a very simple question with an obvious answer now seems a bit more complicated.

This question admittedly is not likely to come up in most employment situations. But it does serve as an example of why it is so important to consult with your legal counsel before making a decision that could cost you later. In the world of labor and employment law, things are rarely as clear as they seem. You shouldn’t make a decision “in the blind” without knowing all the facts and all the relevant law. Competent legal counsel can act as your guide, helping you navigate through the myriad of laws that impact employers and helping you avoid stumbling over an unseen issue.

© Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume IV, Number 230


About this Author

 Mark Jeffries, Labor and Employment Attorney, Steptoe and Johnson Law Firm

Mark Jeffries focuses his practice in the area of labor and employment law.  He has represented employers in wrongful discharge and discrimination cases in state and federal court, as well as before the West Virginia Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission.  He also provides advice to employers on compliance with employment laws and in dealing with unions.  In addition, Mr. Jeffries has represented numerous newspapers in defamation claims.

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