We regularly receive questions from employers about their obligation to permit employees to bring their dogs or other service animals to work as a form of accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Employers are often concerned that other employees, customers, or third parties at their premises will object to the presence of the service animal. This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an ADA claim from a nursing student after a hospital revoked her authorization to have her service dog accompany her following several allergic reactions.
In Bennett v. Hurley Medical Center, the hospital had several complaints about allergic reactions the first day the dog accompanied the student. After additional staff and patient incidents, the hospital informed the student that it was reconsidering the approved accommodation. It offered an alternative that would allow the student time to visit the crated dog in a separate location away from potentially allergic people. She declined this accommodation, and sued the hospital under Title II of the ADA, which deals with accommodation obligations by government entities.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of her claim on the basis that the dog’s presence created a direct threat of harm to other persons. The direct threat defense allows employers, government agencies, or public accommodations to deny accommodation requests where they present a real risk of harm to people. In this case, the allergic reactions demonstrated such risk, especially when the hospital had no way of knowing whether patients had dog allergies.
In most situations, employers and public accommodations must allow service animals on their premises. Unlike rules applying to public accommodations, Title I of the ADA (which applies to employers) does not clearly spell out what training or certification service animals must possess. It also does not spell out how companies should balance disabled workers’ accommodation needs against the effects of such accommodations on other employees. The direct threat defense typically applies to situations with a clear danger of serious harm. The Sixth Circuit found — at least in the hospital context — that potential allergic reactions meet this test. Employers in other industries should consult with legal counsel and carefully review service animal accommodation requests before deciding whether to allow employees to bring their dog to work.
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