Animals in the Workplace? No Way! Or Maybe…

Did you know that legally you just might have to allow your employee to bring their dog (or sometimes another animal) to work?

Wait. What? You might have to let a dog into the office — or out in the field??

Quite possibly, yes. When, where, how and why might you be legally required to do so? That’s this post’s topic, along with, as always, a real-life case example, so read on..

As I’m sure you’ve heard me and many others mention before, under Title I of the ADA a qualified employee with a disability is entitled to a reasonable accommodation . Allowing either a service or support animal under the right circumstances is a reasonable accommodation.

Our real-life case example is Meyer v City of Chehalis CASE NO. 3:22-cv-05008, US Dist Ct., Western District, State of Washington, June 23, 2023. In a nutshell, here is what went down:

In January 2022 a firefighter sued the City of Chehalis WA for refusing to allow him to bring his service dog to the station as a reasonable accommodation of his PTSD.

The court ruled that the firefighter must undergo psychological testing to a) confirm he has PTSD; b) determine the impact of a service dog on his PTSD and his ability to continue working as a firefighter.

Per the court’s ruling, it must determine, specifically, whether the city denied, and continues to deny “an available reasonable accommodation that would permit plaintiff to continue his job in a manner that accommodates his disability”.

The court also stressed that the focus is not on the specific service dog, but on the impact of a potential service dog on the employee’s PTSD and his ability to continue working as a firefighter. In other words, as the court made clear, the service dog does NOT have to undergo any testing to prove its training as a service animal. At the same time, though, Meyer has to prove that a service dog would not only help but also would not hamper his ability to perform his essential job functions.

The City did not raise any undue hardship claim at this juncture, so the feasibility of having a service dog at the station, or even whether the firefighter wanted to dog with him when he responded to an emergency is in no way addressed by the court’s decision. It also appears that the City did not even try to engage in the interactive process with Meyer, as Title I of the ADA requires.

Here’s my big-picture, zooming-out point: No matter how unusual an accommodation request may sound, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Go through the same evaluative, interactive process that you would (or should) go through with any other request. The ADA requires it. Many state laws do as well. In fact, state anti-discrimination laws may require more than the ADA does. State anti-discrimination laws may also apply to more employers. For example, the ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Some state laws may apply to employers with 4 or 5 or more employees or even those with just one employee. While an employee suing under the ADA must first file an EEOC charge, a similar state law may not include such a requirement, in which case, the employee can skip filing a charge with a government agency and instead go ahead file a lawsuit (usually the longer, more drawn-out and more expensive route).

What if, after considering the employee’s request, you ultimately determine that the request itself is not feasible for you, i.e. poses an undue hardship? If so document how you came to that conclusion. Be specific. You’re still not done, though. Explore alternatives, document that as well, and document what you ultimately did and why. If you find an alternative that is likely to be effective in addressing the issue at hand and you cannot show that it poses an undue hardship, then you must grant that alternative. Document that, and whether that accommodation addresses the issue and whether the employee can now perform their essential job functions. If that accommodation does not work out, guess what: yes, you will likely need to re-open that interactive process and again, explore alternatives. Only when you can show that you either tried everything or couldn’t find anything that didn’t pose an undue hardship can you end the interactive process. As you can see, this employer at best ended the process way too soon. The court’s decision suggests it may not even have begun the process.

The idea here is to strive to come up with an accommodation, rather than come up with reasons not to do something you’d rather not do. Chances are there will come a time when you will want your employees to do things they’d rather not do. How do you want them to respond when that happens? As the employer, you set the tone. Most of your employees will take their cues from you. Putting aside even the desire to avoid lawsuits, high turnover, discrimination charges and similar issues what tone do you want to set?

I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll stop here 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 my television interview on Good Morning HR with Mike Coffey on Mental Health and the ADA.

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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