Animals and the ADA

Everyone loves animals—whether as pets, admired from a safe distance at a zoo, or as part of a tasty meal. But too many people who enjoy the companionship of animals are using the law to bring llamas on planes and Fido to work. Where is the line? As is so often the case with employment law, concepts tend to get conflated, which leads to confusion.

First, let’s shine a little light on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA has three main parts, or “Titles.” Title I prohibits disability discrimination in the workplace and covers employers with 15 or more employees. Title II prohibits disability discrimination by public entities; i.e., cities, counties, school districts, etc. And Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability regarding the enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, or public accommodation such as places of lodging.

As employers, you are always covered by Title I, provided you have at least 15 employees. However, depending on the nature of your business, you may also be covered by Titles II and/or  III. This article addresses only your obligations as an employer, as the other Titles are outside Employers Council’s area of expertise.

Next, let’s consider the different designations for these animals. For example, there are service animals, emotional support animals, therapy animals, and animals with no particular designation.

A service animal is defined by the ADA as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Examples include seeing on behalf of a disabled person or alerting a person to an oncoming seizure. Under Title I of the ADA, a service animal is a dog, period. You may have heard that miniature horses can also be service animals, and we’ll address that in a bit. But for all intents and purposes, iguanas, wombats, armadillos, and dolphins are not—and never will be—service animals.

Therapy animals provide physical, psychological, or emotional benefits to those they interact with. However, these animals are more typical in health care, assisted living, and school settings. In other words, they don’t necessarily accompany an individual employee to work. A therapy animal can be any species.

Emotional support or “comfort” animals 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. Again, they can be any species.

Regardless of the type of animal you’re dealing with, the process is essentially the same. The ADA requires employers to provide employees with accommodations—which may include bringing an animal to work—so long as they are reasonable. An accommodation is “reasonable” if it enables an employee to perform the essential functions of their job without posing an undue hardship on your organization. An undue hardship is usually an unjustifiably high financial burden imposed on a company, but it can take other forms, as well.

If an appropriate health care professional recommends an animal as an accommodation to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of their job, then you must evaluate it just like you would any accommodation; i.e., is it reasonable, or does it pose an undue hardship on the organization? Employers Council provides paperwork you can require an employee to have their doctor complete. This paperwork will determine whether the employee has a disability and possible accommodations that could mitigate it. When more than one accommodation will enable the employee to perform their essential job functions, then as the employer, you get to choose the one that will be provided.

If an undue hardship exists, or the animal presents a direct threat to the health and safety of coworkers that cannot be mitigated, then you may be able to deny the animal as a reasonable accommodation. An example would be a regulation that prohibits animals in surgical theaters. If you have a surgeon who enjoys their dog’s company in the operating room, that is likely not something you’ll need to agree to. You would not need to allow a dog to come to work if it would trigger another employee who is highly allergic to dogs.

As a practical matter, a true service animal will easily satisfy the medical inquiry, but could still be denied for the reasons stated. On a more cynical note, it is not difficult to acquire paperwork certifying any dog as a “service animal.”

Now let’s revisit miniature horses. Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released this memorandum. In it, the DOJ stated explicitly that only dogs meet the definition of “service animal.” It then described a role miniature horses could play in assisting people. However, regardless of how trainable and wonderful they may be, miniature horses remain outside the definition of “service animal.” If someone continues to argue this point with you, simply point out that the memorandum deals only with Titles II and III of the ADA, and therefore miniature horses are doubly excluded from the definition as it pertains to employers, who are covered by Title I.

There you have it. As always, there is no need to commit any of this to memory. Should an employee wish to bring an animal to work as a matter of right, you should waste no time in calling Employers Council.

But let’s have no more nonsense about miniature horses.