In recent years, the use of service dogs and other animals has expanded from assisting persons with visual impairments to others with chronic diseases or psychological disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to permit employees to bring their service animals to work as a form of reasonable accommodation unless the animals create an undue hardship or direct threat. Last month, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reminded employers that the ADA accommodation requirement only applies if the measure is necessary for the employee to perform his or her job.
In Hopman v. United Pacific Railroad, the plaintiff is a military veteran who suffers from PTSD and migraines. He requested that he be permitted to have his service dog accompany him to work, but the employer initially rejected the request on the basis that the dog would present safety risks involved with moving train cars. A jury held in the plaintiff’s favor, but the trial judge rejected this verdict based on lack of sufficient evidence to support the verdict.
The Eighth Circuit upheld the district court decision but on different grounds. The court noted that the ADA only requires employers to provide accommodations that assist the employee in performing the essential functions of the job. There is no legal obligation to provide accommodations that do not relate to job performance. The Eighth Circuit panel noted that, in this case, the service dog may have assisted the employee with his symptoms but was not needed for him to do his job.
These cases can be very fact specific, meaning that the question of the connection between the accommodation and the job varies among situations. However, employers faced with employee accommodation requests may want to ask specifically how the request is needed for the employee to complete his or her essential job functions.