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Scopelitis Labor & Employment eNewsletter: A Note About Service Animals in the Workplace

by A. Jack Finklea, Sara L. Pettinger, David D. Robinson, Donald J. Vogel

October 11, 2018

 

A Note About Service Animals in the Workplace

Does an employer have a legal obligation to allow an employee to bring an animal into the workplace? This question has become a hot topic in recent months, with many employers wondering how to navigate this potential minefield. While there has been substantial commentary on this subject, we do not yet have a wealth of caselaw to guide us. Nevertheless, there are some general rules that employers should keep in mind when responding to requests for service animals.

1.  Employers are potentially liable under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The primary issue is whether a service animal qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. This involves an examination of whether the service animal is necessary and effective in allowing a disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his/her job. A service animal is trained to perform a specific task (e.g. guiding a person, alerting a person to the presence of allergens, etc.). Emotional support animals or comfort animals are not so trained, but they provide comfort or a sense of well-being for an individual. Both may be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

2.  Employers are required to engage in an interactive process. Employers should take these requests seriously and initiate an interactive process with the employee to discuss all of the issues, including:

a.  Why is a service animal being requested?
b.  Has there been a medical diagnosis?
c.  What would the animal do?
d.  How does a service animal assist in the performance of any essential functions?
e.  Why is this necessary?
f.  Has a physician recommended this?
g.  Is the animal trained or certified in any way?
h.  Are there alternative accommodations that would be effective?

3.  Employers can seek additional information regarding an alleged disability. The ADA only requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. Therefore, an employer is entitled to request that an employee provide a statement from his/her physician explaining the details of the employee’s condition and why a service animal is a necessary accommodation.

We recognize that a request for a service animal in the workplace raises a host of sensitive issues and has the potential to be quite disruptive. An employer must consider safety issues as well as the needs/sensitivities of other employees who may be affected by the presence of an animal. Like any other accommodation request, an employer is not obligated to permit a service animal if it would impose an undue hardship or pose a direct threat of harm to the employee or others. That determination, however, can only be made following a good faith exploration of the relevant issues with the requesting employee.

For questions contact David Robinson, Jack Finklea, Don Vogel, or Sara Pettinger.

 

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Scopelitis practice area newsletters are intended as reports to our clients and friends on developments affecting the transportation industry. The published material does not constitute an exhaustive legal study and should not be regarded or relied upon as individual legal advice or opinion.

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