Are Service Animals an Accommodation Under the ADA?

Most businesses know that they have to accommodate the service animals their customers bring into their workplace. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the same is true for some employees.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit last Thursday alleging the following: A truck driver trainee in Florida asked to drive with his emotional support/service dog which his psychiatrist had recommended for his post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and mood disorder. His new employer denied the request based on their “no pets” in the workplace policy. When the driver insisted on driving with his dog, his new employer dismissed him from the new driver orientation program and withdrew its pending job offer. The EEOC’s lawsuit alleges that the driver’s PTSD and mood disorder were “disabilities,” that the request to drive with the service dog was a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that the employer violated the ADA when it refused to discuss the accommodation and dismissed the driver without exploring other available positions that the driver could have performed.

Although the involvement of service animals as an accommodation is novel, the EEOC’s legal position on the ADA’s requirements for employers is not. When an employer subject to the ADA receives a request for an accommodation from an employee who has a “disability” (which the ADA defines broadly and includes mental disorders), the ADA requires the employer to engage in an “interactive process” (essentially an exchange) with the employee to discuss reasonable accommodations that may enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the employee’s job. During this process, the employer is sometimes required to make exceptions for the employee to established policies and procedures. But the employer also has the ability to offer alternatives to the employer’s proposed accommodation, and the employer gets to choose from amount equally effective accommodations; even if it isn’t one the employee prefers.

Whether the Court will find that the employee’s request to ride with his service dog was a “reasonable” one that his employer could and should have accommodated remains to be seen. Regardless of the outcome, employers would be well-advised not to dismiss out of hand a request for a service animal from a disabled employee.

But the EEOC’s service dog lawsuit is just as much about the employer’s failure to recognize the driver’s mental disorders as “disabilities” and its refusal of a request for accommodation without engaging in the “interactive process” as it is about whether service animals must be considered as a possible accommodation. To be sure, service animals will not be a “reasonable accommodation” for disabled employees in many work places for a variety of different reasons. Indeed, the employer being sued by the EEOC may have had many valid reasons for not wanting a driver to take his dog on long road trips in a confined space. But those reasons should be part of the discussion of the “interactive process.” Failure to do so may land the employer in the dog house with the EEOC.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.