Upon re-evaluation, service dog barred from workplace

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | January 27, 2023

With increasing frequency, employees ask to bring animals to work. Under some circumstances, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes that the presence of a bona fide service animal in the workplace can be a potential accommodation. Just like any other accommodation issue, employers must address such requests on an individualized basis. A recent case provides a good roadmap of how to handle such requests.

Anxiety disorder, a service dog, and a hospital

Mia Bennett was a nursing student who suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and experienced panic attacks. To treat her panic attacks, Bennett took medication and used a service dog, Pistol.  A Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Pistol was trained to detect rising anxiety on Bennett’s part and signal her to take medication before the full onset of a panic attack.

Bennett’s first clinical training rotation was at Hurley Medical Center in Michigan. For six weeks, she would accompany doctors and nurses during their rounds of patients’ rooms. Before her rotation even began, the nursing student contacted the hospital’s human resources department to request that she be permitted to have Pistol on site as an accommodation for her anxiety. She also provided the hospital with a statement from her licensed professional counselor confirming that Pistol’s presence would “allow [Bennett] to take steps to avoid a panic attack.” Hurley Medical approved Bennett’s request.

Problems with Pistol

Problems arose when Bennett and Pistol reported for their first day. A nurse who was highly allergic to dogs began sweating profusely and experienced difficulty breathing. That nurse went home and missed two days of work as a result of her exposure. Other members of Hurley Medical’s nursing staff reported that they, too, suffered from severe allergies to dogs. At that same time, a patient experienced an allergic reaction to Pistol.

Pistol accommodation re-evaluated

These issues caused the hospital to re-evaluate allowing Pistol to accompany Bennett. First, they discussed with Bennett the possibility of putting Pistol in a Shed Defender® while he was at Hurley Medical. A Shed Defender is a bodysuit for dogs designed to limit their shedding and minimize others’ allergic reactions. Bennett told Summer Jenkins, a manager in the hospital’s HR department, that there were no Shed Defenders that would fit Pistol’s breed. Hurley Medical then offered to allow Pistol on hospital premises, so long as he was kept in a dog crate and was not present on any patient floors. Bennett was working on the 7th and 9th floors, and Hurley Medical made a space available to Bennett on the 8th floor where a crated Pistol could be kept during her shifts. Additionally, the hospital offered breaks to Bennett so that she could spend time with her service dog in the course of her shifts.

Not thrilled with the dog crate option, Bennett instead requested that the hospital relocate patients and staff who complained of dog allergies to other floors where Bennett was not assigned. Significantly, patients were not screened for allergies to dogs. Hurley Medical explained that her proposal was “unworkable and would directly compromise patient care.”

As it turned out, Bennett elected to complete her six-week rotation at Hurley Medical without Pistol, and she did not suffer any panic attacks during that time. Shortly thereafter, though, the nursing student sued Hurley Medical, claiming that the hospital’s handling of her Pistol accommodation request had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA and service animals

The ADA recognizes that the presence of bona fide service animals is a potential disability accommodation that should be considered by an employer. Four exceptions may justify an employer denying an employee’s request that they be accompanied by a service animal while working:

  • When granting access would fundamentally alter the nature of a program;
  • When the service animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others;
  • When the service animal is out of control; or
  • When the service animal is not housebroken.

Like any accommodation issue, an employer must engage in an interactive process when confronted with an employee’s request to bring a service animal to work. This means an individualized assessment of the particular service animal and the requirements of the workplace. Here, the court decided Hurley Medical had reasonably concluded allowing Pistol on patient care floors was a health and safety threat to patients and staff.

The hospital’s concerns were not based upon speculation and generalizations. On the first day, Pistol triggered serious allergic reactions in staff and a patient. As a further danger, some 7th floor patients were immunocompromised.

Offering to allow Pistol on the 8th floor in a crate and facilitate ready access by Bennett to the service animal in the course of her shifts demonstrated that Hurley Medical properly “assessed whether a modification could mitigate the risk Pistol posed without fully excluding him.” In contrast, Bennett’s request that allergic patients and staff be relocated or reassigned to floors where she was not working was not realistic from a patient care or staffing standpoint.

Finally, Hurley Medical fulfilled its interactive process obligation by continuing to discuss with Bennett possible solutions and by explaining to her why some accommodations were not available. Jenkins’ ongoing willingness to talk through these issues and options with Bennett also led to the dismissal of the claims against the hospital.

Bennett v. Hurley Medical Center, Case No. 21-cv-10471 (E.D. Mich. 1/19/23)