April 1: Deadly Companion Animals

You Asked.BlogQ: I am the HR director for a major scientific laboratory. One of our scientists has been diagnosed with PTSD, a rather foreseeable consequence of the bizarre projects he has been forced to oversee. We gave him the ADA paperwork from MSEC to take to his doctor, who believes he could benefit from the company of a service animal throughout the day. All of that is pretty straightforward, but the service animal he wants is a hippogriff, a half-eagle, half-horse monstrosity that he learned about from Harry Potter and was able to recreate in our laboratories.

Apart from the screeching, the creature is large and carnivorous, and I’m concerned it may pose a danger to other employees, or, at the very least, make them fear for their lives.

Also, it can fly.

Must we permit the employee to bring this thing to the office?

A: To answer this question, I tapped MSEC’s own Justin Hocking, Esq., our top authority on service animals.

Hocking explains that while any animal could potentially provide emotional support to an employee, the term “service animal” is a term of art.

“A ‘service animal’ is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability,” says Hocking. “This means that service animals, unlike companion, therapeutic, or emotional support animals, are always dogs (or, in some cases, miniature horses) but never cats, pigs, or iguanas, etc.

“‘Therapeutic animals’” or ‘companion animals,’ on the other hand, could be any kind of animal that provides comfort,” Hocking continues. “Though many people use these terms to describe an animal that has a calming effect on others, there is no specific task that these animals have been trained to perform. They may even include family pets.

“Lastly, ‘emotional support animals’ refers to animals that have not been specifically trained, but nevertheless may have been recommend by a medical provider in order to mitigate a person’s symptoms of emotional or mental distress.”

It is not clear that the miniature horse provision applies to Title I of the ADA, which is the portion that covers employers. Nonetheless, to be safe, we recommend you evaluate whether the employee’s hippogriff constitutes a “miniature horse.” If it exceeds 34 inches at the shoulder or 100 pounds, it is not “miniature.” Also, the fact that it has the head of an eagle suggests it may not meet the definition of “horse.” Accordingly, it is likely not a service animal. However, that does not mean you can deny the request without going through the rest of the analysis.

Next, take a look at the paperwork filled out by the employee’s doctor. Does it specifically recommend a hippogriff, or is it more general? When more than one accommodation will enable the employee to perform their essential job functions, the employer gets to choose. If the paperwork merely states the employee could benefit from a therapeutic, companion, or emotional support animal, perhaps you could authorize a small dog as an alternative. If the paperwork does specify a hippogriff, contact the employee’s doctor—after obtaining the proper release—and inquire whether another animal might suffice. If the employee only finds relief through mythical creatures, pegasi and unicorns are known for their pleasant dispositions, but again, be prepared for the “miniature horse” argument.

If none of the foregoing approaches is successful, you may still be able to deny the accommodation if it poses an undue hardship. The employee’s request may be denied if the hippogriff presents a direct threat to the health and safety of coworkers that can’t be mitigated by another accommodation. For example, if the hippogriff has a taste for human flesh, you could probably deny the accommodation request with little legal risk. On the other hand, allowing the employee to work from home might mitigate the creature’s murderous tendencies.

As always, please don’t hesitate to call MSEC early in the interactive process. We are always happy to help.

Send your questions to cgraves@msec.org. Please tell us if you would prefer your identity not be mentioned in our answer.