Can Your Employee Bring Their Dog to Work?

Do you have to let your employee bring their dog to work? Yes, sometimes, believe it or not, you might. It may be a reasonable accommodation of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA/ADAAA). But not always. So when don’t you have to allow the dog (or other service/support animal) in your workplace? That’s a very fact-sensitive question for which I have a real-life case example that I hope you will find helpful.

The case is Bennett v Hurley Medical Center, and here, in a nutshell, is what went down:

Mia Bennett was a nursing student intern with generalized anxiety disorder, “with a history of panic attacks” assigned to do her clinical rotation at Hurley Medical Center in MI. The panic attacks can come on with little or no warning and can last for an hour. During an untreated panic attack, (according to the court record) her heart rate would go up, and she’d experience “shortness of breath, tightness in her chest”, and “a feeling of impending doom. The attacks also caused “an intense fear of recurrence”.

Ms. Bennett, therefore, submitted an accommodation request to HR, asking that her Corgi service dog, Pistol, be allowed to accompany her on her rotations, where she followed doctors and nurses making their rounds of patients’ rooms, particularly on floors 7E and 9E of the hospital.

Pistol was trained to detect anxious behaviors and signal her to take her medication to stop a panic attack before she could recognize it. Since employing Pistol, Bennett experienced panic attacks “drastically” less often.

On literally the first day of rounds, patients and employees on Floor 7E had severe dog-allergy reactions. After a re-evaluation and several talks with Ms. Bennett, HR concluded it couldn’t continue to allow Pistol on the floors.

Ms. Bennett asked Hurley to reconsider its withdrawal, of the accommodation. HR denied the request and continued discussing alternatives with Ms. Bennett. Hurley considered the possibility of moving either other staff or patients so that Ms. Bennett could continue her rotation with Pistol accompanying her, but established that its ability to move either staff or patients, was, at best, limited. Ultimately Hurley offered to crate Pistol on the 8th floor during patient care timeframes and allow for necessary breaks and provide Ms. Bennett tutoring for any rounds she missed due to breaks spent with Pistol. HR also assured Ms. Bennet that they “remain open to continued dialogue on this matter.”

Ms. Bennett later complained that tutoring could not “replicate the patient experience”, so she opted to do her rounds without Pistol — and sue the hospital for discrimination and failure to accommodate under Title II of the ADA and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Act. At the time of her deposition, Ms. Bennett had completed at least one other rotation and was in the midst of another one. Pistol accompanied her on the first rotation, but not the latter two rotations. Ms. Bennett testified that since the incident at Hurley, she had not had one patient complain about Pistol.

Hurley moved for summary judgment. The court granted the hospital’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Pistol was a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Hurley argued that allowing Pistol to continue accompanying Ms. Bennett on her rounds posed a direct threat to the health and safety of patients and staff. Citing actual allergic reactions from at least one patient and at least one staff member almost immediately after allowing Pistol on the floors with Ms. Bennett, the court agreed. Ms. Bennet argued that Hurley simply withdrew the accommodation without further engaging in the interactive process as required under the ADA. The court found that Ms. Bennett offered no evidence to support her allegations and that Hurley, in contrast, offered evidence showing its attempts to continue dialog with her in an attempt to provide her alternative accommodations. In fact, when Hurley did offer an alternative, Ms. Bennet rejected the offer without proposing any alternatives of her own.

Even viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Bennett, the court found that no reasonable jury could conclude that Hurley caused a breakdown in the interaction process.

While the hospital won this case, the Dept of Justice’s general rule is that allowing service animals is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA unless the animal is out of control, not housebroken, a threat to health/safety or fundamentally alters the nature of the program.

In either case, the hospital did a lot right here. It engaged in the interactive process with Ms. Bennett and made good-faith efforts to provide the accommodation, and it provided ample evidence of a sound basis for withdrawing the accommodation in question.

That said, no matter how silly or ridiculous an accommodation request may sound, don’t reject it out of hand. Engage in the interactive process and try to provide the accommodation or an effective alternative — or sound reasons why you cannot do so — and document it all.

OK, I think that’s enough for now.

Are you an employer interested in proactively addressing workplace challenges and company culture? Visit my website, to contact me for a complimentary 20-minute consultation. 

Watch the latest video clip in my series, “Ask the Employer’s Lawyer: My Employee Has Exhausted All Her FMLA Leave Time. What do I do?

Watch my television interview on Stop My Crisis with Vivian Gaspar.

Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.

Before choosing an attorney, you should give this matter careful thought. The selection of an attorney is an important decision. If you find this communication to be inaccurate or misleading, you may report it to the Committee on Attorney Advertising Hughes Justice Complex, CN 037, Trenton, NJ



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