Q. An employee with epilepsy wants to bring a dog to work to assist her in the event of a seizure. Our business is not conducive to having animals at work. Must we permit her to bring her dog?
A. The provisions of the ADA applicable to places of public accommodation (Title III) create a specific obligation for privately-owned businesses open to the public to permit disabled individuals to bring service animals into their facility, with very limited exceptions.
While the provisions of the ADA applicable to employers (Title I) do not specifically address or require employers to permit service dogs in the workplace, the EEOC takes the position that permitting the use of a service dog at work by a disabled employee may be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Whether the use of a service dog may be a reasonable accommodation in this circumstance will depend upon the unique circumstances of the employee’s position, medical condition and nature of your work environment, which are not readily apparent from your question. You would not have to permit the use of a service animal in any circumstance that would fundamentally alter the nature of your business or in a manner that would pose a direct threat to the employee with the dog or other individuals.
The law does not require permitting an employee to bring a pet dog to work. Rather, a service dog is one that has been specifically trained to assist an individual with a disability in a manner directly related to the individual’s disability.
So-called seizure dogs can be trained both to help individuals in the event of a seizure and to predict when someone is about to have a seizure, giving the person time to take medication, call for help or move to a safe location.
Carefully consider whether your employee may need the service dog as a reasonable accommodation, or whether there is an equally effective reasonable accommodation that might permit the employee to continue performing the essential functions of her job.
Responding to requests for reasonable accommodations in the workplace are always fact specific and require careful consideration of, among other things, the requesting employee’s physical or mental disability and its limitations, essential functions of the employee’s position, nature of the employer’s business and whether the requested accommodation would pose a direct threat and past practice.
Don’t hesitate to seek an attorney’s advice as you work through the interactive process with an employee who is requesting an unusual accommodation, as the process can be filled with unanticipated land mines.
Susan K. Fitzke and Sarah J.Gorajski are shareholders, advising clients out of Littler Mendelson’s Minneapolis office. Contact them at (612) 630-1000 or send email to Susan at email@example.com and Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.