Wednesday, March 15, 2023

EEOC lawsuit highlights risks associated with not accommodating service animals

The EEOC has filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against Papa John's Pizza claiming that it denied the request of Michael Barnes, who is blind, to bring his service dog — Indie, a black lab — with him to work. After denying his request, the agency alleges, the pizza company fired Barnes. 

This seems like an easy accommodation request to get right, and yet so many employers get it wrong. Here's a handy Q&A for your next service animal accommodation request in your workplace.

Q: What types of animals does the ADA permit as service animals?

A: The ADA limits service animals dogs and miniature horses (although note that there is no such limitation on emotional support animals).

Q: Must an employer allow all request for service animals?

A: No. As with any request for an accommodation, an employee's request for a service animal is subject to the interactive process, and employer may be entitled to receive some medical information about the employee's disability how the service animal presence will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. If the disability and need are readily apparent, however (such as blind employee's seeing eye dog), an employer may not be entitled to seek medical information and confirmation.

Q: Who is responsible for caring for the service animal during the work day?

A: It is the employee's responsibility to care for and monitor the service animal, including cleaning up any messes (outside and inside). It is the employer's responsibility to make accommodations that allow the employee to care for the employee, such as providing time to take the animal outside to relieve itself and a reasonable designated space to do so. The employer and employee would discuss these details during interactive process.

Q: May an employer place limits on where a service animal can go in the workplace?

A: A service animal is not a pet, it's an extension of the employee because it enables the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. Thus, the animal should be allowed to go anywhere needed by the employee for this purposes. Again, these details should be discussed and worked out during interactive process.

Q: What if other employees are allergic to the service animal?

A: Generally speaking, simple strategies that separate the service animal from the affected worker(s) offer simple solutions. The presence of another employee's allergy to a service animal is not a reason to prohibit the accommodation, although these should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and depend on the severity of the allergy and the potential reaction.

If only Papa John's had this Q&A handy before it denied Barnes's request.