Accommodating Service or Emotional Support Animals
By Jim Griffin, JD, Employment Counsel
Published March 13, 2018
Every so often, we receive a question from a member asking if they must accommodate an individual’s request to bring an animal on the premises. Whether an organization must accommodate such a request may depend on 1) whether the organization is a place of public accommodation; 2) whether the individual requesting the accommodation is an employee or, for places of public accommodation, a member of the public; and 3) whether the animal at issue is a service animal or an emotional support animal.
The first consideration is whether the organization is a “place of public accommodation,” which would include state and government agencies and businesses that are open to the public, such as shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, medical offices, recreational facilities, etc. If an organization is a place of public accommodation, it is subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its very specific regulations, which dictate what types of animals it must accommodate when brought in by members of the public. These regulations distinguish between service animals (which generally must be allowed) and emotional support animals (which do not have to be allowed).
A service animal means any dog or miniature horse that is 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. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, calming someone having an anxiety attack, or pressing an elevator button. Title III of the ADA does not, however, include emotional support, well-being, comfort, companionship, or guarding as a recognized task that protects an individual’s right to enter a place of public accommodation with an animal. Nor does it recognize animals other than dogs and miniature horses.
To determine whether a particular dog or miniature horse is a service animal covered by the ADA, an organization may only ask two questions: 1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and 2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. The organization cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the animal, or ask that the animal demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.
An organization can only require an individual to remove the service animal if it is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or it is not housebroken. Allergies or fear of the animals are not valid reasons for denying access. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.
Title I of the ADA (which details the obligations of employers, regardless of whether they are places of public accommodation) has no specific regulations pertaining to service or emotional support animals. Therefore, when the individual requesting the accommodation is an employee, an employer must consider the request as it would consider any other request for accommodation and determine whether the request is reasonable, and whether it constitutes an undue hardship or poses a direct threat to the employee or others. For employment purposes, whether the animal is a service animal or emotional support animal is not determinative – the employer must consider whether it can reasonably accommodate it.
However, an employer does have the right to seek more information, as it would with any other accommodation request. The employer can require the employee to provide medical documentation describing the nature, severity, and duration of the employee's impairment, the activity or activities that the impairment limits, and the extent to which the impairment limits the employee's ability to perform the activity or activities. Finally, the employer can ask for substantiation of why the requested reasonable accommodation (i.e., the animal) is needed. Management Association members can utilize the sample ADA inquiry form in these situations.
Association members dealing with a specific accommodation request can reach us at 800-448-4584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.