Recent Michigan Case Highlights Issues Surrounding Service Animals at Work

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities, including workers on the job.

Certain animals, typically dogs, can be trained to perform many important tasks to assist people with disabilities, such as providing stability for a person who has trouble walking or picking up items for a person who uses a wheelchair. The ADA requires business owners and others to make “reasonable modifications” in their policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to accommodate people with disabilities. The service animal rules fall under this general principle. Accordingly, entities that have a “no pets” policy generally must modify the policy to allow service animals into their facilities.

What is a service animal?

The ADA defines a service animal as a dog or miniature horse that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to signal the owner when his or her blood sugar reaches high or low levels.

Emotional support animals assist individuals with mental or emotional disabilities and are not covered under the ADA.

Bennett v. Hurley Medical Center

The ADA does not require covered entities to modify policies, practices, or procedures if it would “fundamentally alter” the nature of goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public. Nor does it overrule legitimate safety concerns. If admitting service animals would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program, service animals may be prohibited.

A recent Michigan case serves as an example of a service animal creating a safety risk in the workplace. In Bennett v. Hurley Medical Center a student nurse with a service dog sued the hospital, asserting claims under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. The student nurse, who was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and suffered from panic attacks, relied on a Pembroke Welsch Corgi dog named Pistol to signal before an anxiety attack. When Pistol noticed certain behaviors, he would prompt the student to take medication that would stop an anxiety attack.

To fulfill her graduation requirements, the student nurse completed clinical training at Hurley Medical Center, which entailed following medical personnel on their rounds of patients’ rooms. The student nurse applied for an accommodation that would permit bringing Pistol along during rounds. Hurley approved the request.

On the first day of the student nurse’s clinical rotations with Pistol, a nurse with severe dog allergies was sent home and required an additional day off after having a reaction. As a result, the nursing staff had to be rearranged to accommodate for the absent nurse. In addition, a patient had an allergic reaction to the animal, even though Pistol did not enter the patient’s room.

The medical center reevaluated the student nurse’s accommodation and offered to put the dog in a Lycra body suit or crate him during patient care times. The student opted to finish the six-week rotation without the dog. She did not suffer a panic attack, but ultimately sued the hospital.

The hospital moved for summary judgment, and U.S. District Judge Paul Borman granted Hurley’s motion, stating the hospital did not violate the ADA by withdrawing its accommodation.

Service animals on the job

Generally, an allergy to animal dander is not a valid reason for denying access to employees using service animals. When a person who is allergic and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, they should both be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations. However, as the case above illustrates, that is not always possible and there may be instances in which service animal requests may be denied.

Help is available

The business attorneys at O’Reilly Rancilio are available to answer questions regarding the ADA in the workplace. To speak with an attorney, please call 586-726-1000 or visit our website.

Categories: Business