Move Over, Rover, and Let EEOC Take Over

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By Patrick Dorrian

A truck driver trainee in Florida was illegally denied use of an emotional support dog as an accommodation for his PTSD and mood disorder, federal authorities alleged ( EEOC v. CRST Int’l , M.D. Fla., No. 3:17-cv-00241, complaint filed 3/2/17 ).

Freight company CRST International Inc. and a subsidiary violated federal disabilities discrimination law when they withdrew their job offer to Leon Laferriere because he asked if he could drive with his service animal, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged in a lawsuit filed March 2 in federal court in Jacksonville, Fla.

The companies also failed to discuss other potential job accommodations with Laferriere and instead dismissed him from their new driver orientation program in retaliation for his requesting help with post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome and mood disorder, the EEOC claims. Laferriere should be re-offered a truck driver position and compensated for his pain and suffering, according to the agency.

The lawsuit is somewhat novel for the EEOC, an agency spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA. “I’m told that we have had a similar case out of our Chicago office several years ago,” and there was a case in the U.S. Supreme Court involving a child who needed a service dog at school, she said in a March 3 email.

But Nancy Horton of the ADA National Network said her organization is seeing “a lot more issues, questions and confusion” about the use of service animals in general, including as job accommodations under the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I don’t know if that means people are using service animals more, but the issue is definitely coming up more,” Horton told Bloomberg BNA March 3. She’s a technical assistance project specialist in the ADANN’s mid-Atlantic regional office in Rockville, Md.

“Service animal” isn’t defined under the ADA’s employment provisions, and there is confusion about whether people can look to the ADA’s public facilities and public accommodations provisions’ definition of the term, Horton said. That’s “risky,” she said, as there are substantial differences between the ADA’s various parts and the use of service animals may be more open under the employment provisions than the other parts.

Treat Like Any Other Accommodation Request

For that reason, an employer should treat a worker’s request to use an emotional support dog or other animal for assistance with a disability just as it would any other accommodation request under the ADA, said Horton, who has decades of experience in the disability-accommodation field.

Employers should go through the same process and make the same individualized inquiry when an employee seeks permission to use a service animal as when use of a special chair, a schedule adjustment, or other more common accommodation is requested, she said. Examine the request in the context of the job, the workplace, and other relevant factors, she said.

Employers and employees are sometimes getting “a little tangled up” in what the ADA requires as far as the use of service animals is concerned, Horton said. The EEOC doesn’t have a specific regulation or other guidance on service animals, she said.

But just because companies need to be open to granting employee requests to use emotional support or other service animals at work doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate, she added. Horton said she hasn’t heard of any actual situations involving a particular industry or job type, but that there “certainly could be jobs where it’s not reasonable or possible” to have a service animal present.

But just having a company policy against use of a dog in the workplace, which is what the EEOC says CRST told Laferriere, wouldn’t seem to put this case into that category, Horton said. The whole idea of providing a reasonable accommodation is to consider granting individualized exceptions to those sort of workplace policies, she said.

CRST didn’t respond March 3 to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

A representative of American Trucking Associations also didn’t respond March 3 to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment. The association is not involved in the case.

Help Available

Lawsuits by the EEOC against employers for denying use of a service dog as an accommodation are rare. However, the federal job bias watchdog in December released guidance for employees, job applicants and mental-health-care providers on worker mental health issues, which may provide further cause for employers to remain open to the possibility of allowing service animals into the workplace.

In fact, EEOC charge statistics show that the number of claims filed with the agency alleging bias based on a mental health condition or psychological disorder has grown substantially in the past 10 years. Preliminary data released by the agency for its 2016 fiscal year show it pulled in roughly $20 million in mental-health-based disability charge resolutions for the year.

The good thing is that there are a lot of resources out there for employers and employees to help “sort through these issues in a positive way,” including whether use of a service animal to accommodate a worker’s mental health problem is appropriate, Horton said. She cited her own organization, the Job Accommodation Network and others.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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