Recent Decisions Prove ADA Reasonable Accommodation Process Can Be Ruff (US)Laura Lawless and Ansley Fantaskion May 7, 2024 at 7:54 pm Employment Law Worldview


May 5-11 is National Pet Week. You may be work from home with your constant cuddly companion always nearby, or you may work at one of the growing number of companies offering pet-friendly in-office policies. But if you are or work for one of the many employers with a strict policy against bringing Fluffy or Fido to the office, a spate of recent decisions involving service animals in the workplace warrants your attention. (Heel. Sit. Good employer!) Unlike Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which governs service animals (dogs and miniature horses) in places of public accommodation (such as retail businesses), applicant and employee requests to bring service animals to work are governed by Title I of the ADA. Under Title I of the ADA, employers must reasonably accommodate the known disabilities of applicants and employees unless doing so poses an undue hardship. That includes considering service animals as reasonable workplace disability accommodations.

In its 2024-2028 Strategic Enforcement Plan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – the federal administrative agency that oversees enforcement of the ADA – pledged, among other priorities, to focus on the vulnerable and underserved worker population, such as persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities and workers facing mental health-related disabilities, and to eliminate barriers in recruitment and hiring, such as “inflexible policies” that discourage certain protected groups from applying for employment or that discriminate against individuals with disabilities. Many persons with significant intellectual, development or mental health disabilities, as well as those with sensory disabilities, benefit from the assistance of service animals and face significant obstacles in employment from policies and practices that refuse to accommodate such requests. Two recent suits brought by the EEOC reflect the agency’s commitment to this strategic enforcement priority.

The first such case involved a claim that retailer Hobby Lobby discriminated against a part-time merchandise stocking clerk/cashier by refusing to allow her to bring her fully trained medical service dog to work. Shortly after being hired, the employee – referred to as “S.C.” – informed her store manager of her need to bring her service animal to work with her to assist her with symptoms related to her anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and she submitted a written request for accommodation to that effect. The store manager asked S.C. to provide medical documentation to support her request for accommodation and referred the ADA request to corporate human resources. S.C. provided Hobby Lobby with a letter from her mental health provider to support her request to bring her service dog to work and provided further information to a Human Resources Specialist assigned to analyze the request.

Two weeks later, Hobby Lobby denied S.C.’s request for accommodation, claiming that a service dog at the store would contribute to “identified” (but unspecified) “safety hazards” incompatible with “the overall nature of the business.” S.C. pressed for more information about what specific safety hazards the company feared. The HR Specialist responded that patrons or coworkers may be allergic to the dog, someone might trip over the dog or the dog might break something, but he never allowed S.C. to bring her service dog to the store to test whether any of these fears were justified. When S.C. showed up for work a week later with her service dog in tow, she was sent home and told that, if she did not show up for work without her service dog, she would be considered to have abandoned her job.

The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that Hobby Lobby violated the ADA by denying S.C.’s request for reasonable accommodation. After conciliation failed, the EEOC sued in federal court in Kansas (EEOC v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., Case No. 2:22-cv-02258), alleging that Hobby Lobby was barking up the wrong tree by assuming, without objective support for its assumption, that the presence of a service animal in the store would have posed an undue hardship. Hobby Lobby settled the suit by paying S.C. $50,000 and agreeing to adopt and maintain policies that service animals can be considered reasonable accommodations and to provide employee training to ensure future compliance with the ADA. In its press release announcing the consent decree, the EEOC warned that “[e]mployers cannot reject services animals … based on unfounded assumptions regarding safety.”

The second suit involved an employer’s similar hasty reaction to a legally blind applicant’s request for service dog assistance with transportation to and from work. See EEOC v. Papa John’s Inc., Civil Action No. 3:23-cv-00030 (M.D. Ga. March 14, 2023). During his interview, the visually impaired candidate told the store manager that he would need to have his guide dog on premises while working. He explained that he did not need his service animal by his feet in the food preparation area as the animal was tasked with safely guiding him on public transportation to and from work, so he could be kept crated in a safe location away from customers and food preparation areas during the applicant’s shift. Although the restaurant hired the applicant, he could not start work until his accommodation request was formally granted.

The restaurant denied the applicant’s request and terminated his employment before he worked his first shift, assuming with pawsitively no objective evidence in support of its conclusion, that a dog in the restaurant would pose a health and safety risk. Papa John’s Accommodation Request Committee did not communicate directly with the applicant about the specifics of his accommodation request, nor did it investigate whether there were areas where the dog could be crated during business hours that would not pose a safety or hygiene risk. After the EEOC found reasonable cause to suspect a violation of the ADA and filed suit, the matter resolved through entry of a consent decree requiring Papa John’s to pay $175,000 in monetary damages to the applicant and obligating the chain to undertake a review of its employment policies, train its employees on the ADA and allow the EEOC to monitor complaints of discrimination or retaliation.

These costly settlements—equal parts bark and bite—underscore the EEOC’s commitment to ensuring employment opportunities for persons with disabilities who rely on service animals to work safely and productively. Employers are reminded that, like any ADA reasonable accommodation analysis, ones involving service animals require an individualized, case-specific analysis to determine whether the request is reasonable or would impose an undue hardship, so it is critical to paws before automatically denying an employee’s request for a fuzzy (or not so fuzzy) companion. Generalizations and stereotypes about service animals will not suffice to satisfy an employer’s duty in the interactive dialogue. For instance, while having a service animal in the food preparation area may have been unreasonable and grounds for denying the applicant’s request, the Papa John’s candidate’s request to keep his service animal on-site away from food prep areas was not unreasonable or an undue hardship for the restaurant. Indeed, the applicant’s request was consistent with FDA Food Code Section 2-403.11 which addresses how service animals can aid workers in restaurants without jeopardizing food safety: Bone appétit! Likewise, had the Hobby Lobby clerk’s service animal been aggressive or destructive after an on-site evaluation, then the store’s accommodation denial would have been based on objective evidence and not stereotypical assumptions of animal behavior.

Employers questioning how best to accommodate service animals in the workplace are encouraged to consider this resource published by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy and to confer with their SPB employment counsel.

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