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SPB In-Depth: Service Animals as Reasonable Workplace Disability Accommodations (US)

Many individuals with disabilities use service animals to help them fully engage in everyday life.  Animals, particularly dogs, can be trained to perform a wide range of tasks to help people with disabilities, and the number of tasks these specially trained animals can perform continues to grow. As a result, more applicants and employees are requesting the use of service animals as a reasonable workplace accommodation for a variety of different disabilities.  In addition, the growing popularity of emotional support animals adds another layer of complexity to the issue of animals in the workplace for employers.  Because the law in this area is somewhat murky, employers must use caution when addressing service animal/emotional support animal accommodation requests and need to be prepared to address the potential challenges that such accommodations can entail.

Animals as Accommodations under the ADA

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which specifically addresses disabilities in the employment context, is silent on the issue of service animals in the workplace.  However, Title III of the ADA, which addresses accommodation of persons with disabilities in public and commercial facilities, provides some guidance regarding service animals.  Title III requires places of public accommodation to permit service animals to accompany individuals with disabilities in all areas where the public is allowed to go.  Importantly, this provision of the ADA narrowly defines a “service animal” as either a dog or miniature horse (when reasonable) that has been individually trained “to do work or perform tasks” for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

Such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, alerting a diabetic in advance of low or high blood sugar events, and reminding a person with a mental illness to take prescribed medications.  Service animals are working animals, not pets, and to meet the definition of a service animal, the work or task that the animal has been trained to perform must be directly related to the person’s disability.  Under Title III of the ADA, business owners can only ask individuals with disabilities who are accompanied by a service dog or miniature horse if (1) the dog or miniature horse is a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.

Conversely, under Title III’s definition, an animal whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support does not qualify as a service animal under the ADA because it has not been sufficiently trained to perform a specific job or task.  Therefore, under the ADA, there is no obligation to accommodate emotional support animals in places of public accommodation.  However, as we previously reported here, because there are so few restrictions on individuals bringing animals in places of public accommodation, businesses owners report that patrons frequently try to fraudulently pass off their emotional support animals or pets as legitimate service animals.  In response to this issue, states like Arizona have enacted laws making it illegal to misrepresent a pet as a service animal or service animal-in-training and creating civil penalties of up to $250 for each violation.  Although business owners have no obligation to accommodate emotional support animals under federal law or under the laws of some states, other states have enacted their own laws specific to service animals and emotional support animals that expand the obligation to accommodate.  For example, California and a minority of other states have disability discrimination laws that do allow for emotional support animals as a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances.  Further, other federal laws, such as the Fair Housing Act, include emotional support animals in their definition of service animals.

Service Animals in the Employment Context

Although Title III’s definition of “service animal” is informative, employers and employees are not limited to those rigid restrictions because Title I does not specifically address service animals in the employment context.  Therefore, unlike in places of public accommodation, where entities are required to allow service animals, under Title I, employers are not automatically required to grant a request for use of a service animal by an employee or applicant.  Instead, employers must consider the request for a service animal as they would any request for a reasonable accommodation, and after engaging in the interactive process, determine whether granting the request is necessary and not unduly burdensome.  At bottom, an employee’s or applicant’s request to use a service animal as a reasonable accommodation for a disability is really just a request to deviate from an employer’s “no-pets” or “no-animals” policy (assuming it maintains those policies).  Accordingly, employers who have policies explicitly prohibiting pets/animals in the workplace should modify such policies to allow for service animals as a potential reasonable accommodation, when appropriate.

On the other hand, in some instances, employers may be required to provide employees with more expansive accommodations than those contemplated by Title III.  For example, depending on the circumstances, the use of other types of service animals than dogs and miniature horses may be considered a reasonable accommodation for employees.  Moreover, because Title I does not have a specific definition of “service animal” in the employment context, the use of emotional support animals may be considered a reasonable disability accommodation for employees/applicants, in certain situations.  Accordingly, employers should not summarily dismiss an employee’s or applicant’s request simply because the animal is not a dog or miniature horse, or because the animal is identified as an emotional support animal.

What to Do When an Employee or Applicant Requests Use of an Animal as an Accommodation

An applicant or employee’s request to use a service or emotional support animal in the workplace should be treated as any other disability accommodation request.   As with any such request, the employer should  gather basic information about the employee’s condition and reasons for the request.  When the disability and/or need for accommodation is not obvious, an employer can ask for medical documentation regarding the individual’s disability and functional limitations, as well as information about how the animal will assist the employee with his or her disability.  Further, employers can request documentation about the animal’s training and health records, including vaccination history.  The employer and employee/applicant should engage in the ADA interactive process to determine if the accommodation request is reasonable and necessary under the circumstances.  The employer should consider the employee’s job and the work environment when determining whether a deviation from any no-animal policy is feasible.  Further, the employer can seek other information needed for determining whether the animal will cause undue hardship, such as health or safety issues, or workplace disruptions.

Under the ADA, qualified disabled individuals are entitled to reasonable accommodation necessary to permit them to perform the essential functions of their position, but are not  guaranteed his or her preferred accommodation.  Therefore, if there is an alternative solution that would allow the employee or applicant to perform the essential functions of the job—other than an exception to the employer’s no-animals policy—the employer can offer that other accommodation instead of allowing the animal in the workplace.   Employers should however tread carefully when denying a disability request involving an animal, particularly a trained service animal, because in most cases the service animal may be the only reasonable accommodation available due to the unique and personal circumstances involved in such cases.

With that said, employers are free to set ground rules for the animals and their owners in the workplace. Employers can require that the animal does not damage property, cause disruptions, or endanger the health or safety of anyone on the premises.  Further, employers can require that the animals be house-trained and free from offensive odors.  Employers should also outline their policy regarding supervision of the animal to ensure that the owner always has direct control and that no one else other than the owner becomes responsible for taking care of or watching the animal at the workplace.  All expectations and policies regarding service animals should be explained clearly to employees to avoid miscommunications or confusion.

How to Handle the Impact on Coworkers

A common challenge that arises when employers allow service or emotional support animals in the workplace is the impact on other coworkers.  For example, some employees may be extremely afraid of or allergic to the animal.  Although such circumstances are not a proper reason to deny an accommodation request involving an animal, employers should work with all employees involved to find a solution that works for everyone.  If an employee indicates that he or she has an allergy or phobia related to the animal, the employer should attempt to accommodate that employee, and should be careful not to prioritize one employee’s disability over another’s.  There are a number of ways that employers can separate and protect both employees, such as providing private workspaces, allowing telecommuting, restricting the animal from certain areas, or providing air cleaners to reduce animal dander.

Further, employers should consider educating the other employees about the dos and don’ts of interacting with service or emotional support animals so they do not interfere with the animal’s work or cause workplace disruptions.  Employers must however also bear in mind that the ADA requires a certain level of confidentiality that limits an employer’s ability to disclose specific information to coworkers about another employee’s (or applicant’s) disability and accommodations.  Employers should be mindful of these restrictions, and when possible, should work with the disabled employee to help educate and inform other coworkers about the animal’s role and restrictions.

Because this issue remains a nebulous area of law, employers should consult with counsel to ensure compliance in their particular jurisdiction and under their specific circumstances when confronted with a request for an accommodation involving service or emotional support animals.

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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About this Author

Melissa Legault, Squire PB, Employment lawyer
Associate

Melissa Legault is an associate in the Phoenix office, where she focuses her practice on labor and employment matters. Melissa assists employers in diverse matters related to their employment relationships. She routinely researches and analyzes legal authorities for drafting memoranda, pleadings and position statements related to employment law. Melissa also conducts legal research on employment case law and current events to help clients achieve their goals while complying with frequently changing regulations.

Melissa graduated magna cum laude from the...

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