The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) can be very confusing for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Even large businesses make mistakes that violate the ADA. At the restaurant chain Houlihan’s, a hostess and her manager turned away a war veteran with a service dog. Uber has gotten into trouble several times in the past because drivers have refused to pick up individuals who require service dogs. Even a hospital, the New York State Psychiatric Institute, turned away a 9/11 volunteer that was trying to attend counseling because he brought his service dog.
Some of these situations will result in lawsuits or pricey settlements that many businesses can’t afford. The ADA requirements on businesses to accommodate service animals are not very well known. Below, we will discuss some highlights of the requirements that are placed on businesses when working with customers with service animals.
Why do businesses need to accommodate service animals?
The ADA requires “places of public accommodation” (generally, most businesses that serve the public) to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities. The ADA regulations were amended in 2010 to clarify that these businesses must modify their policies, practices, and procedures to permit use of a service animal by an individual with a disability.
What is a service animal?
A service animal is a dog that is trained to perform tasks that benefit a person with a disability, with the task being directly related to the individual’s disability. Some examples include dogs that:
- Alert a person with diabetes that his or her blood sugar is high or low
- Remind individuals with disabilities to take their medication
- Can detect the onset of a seizure in a person who has epilepsy and helps the person remain safe during the seizure
- Provide stability to individual with mobility disabilities
- Guide individuals who are blind
Dogs that merely provide emotional support or comfort but that are not trained to perform a specific task like those above are not service dogs under the ADA.
The dogs do not have to be professionally trained, and they do not have to wear any sort of identifying tag or harness.
What do businesses need to do to accommodate service animals?
Businesses are required to allow the individual with disabilities and the service animal anywhere that is open to the businesses customers without disabilities, regardless of whether other customers or employees are afraid of dogs or have dog allergies.
Some examples of what businesses CANNOT do include:
- Ask for or require a surcharge of any sort for individuals with service animals
- Ask for or require a cleaning charge for individuals with service animals, unless the animal causes destruction to the property and the business has a policy of charging individuals for property destruction
- Require documentation or require the dog to wear a tag or uniform
- Require the owner to have liability insurance for the service animal
- Require the owner to obtain any vaccinations for or to register the service animal unless state or city law requires all owners of animals to do so
What can businesses do to avoid being taken advantage of?
If it is obvious that the animal is a service dog and what task(s) the dog performs, the bu
siness cannot ask any questions about the animal. Asking any questions would be considered harassment.
If it is not obvious that the animal is a service dog or what it has been trained to perform, business can only ask these two questions:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
The business cannot request paperwork, inquire about the person’s disability, or require the dog to demonstrate its task.
Some good news for businesses – businesses do not have to provide food for, care for, or supervise the service animal. Also, businesses can exclude a service animal if
- The animal is out of control (not controlled by voice/harness)
- The animal is not housebroken
- Allowing a service animal on the premises if it would “fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public”. This is incredibly difficult to meet. The US Department of Justice has given very limited examples, like restricting service dogs from a specific area of a dorm at boarding school that is reserved for students with allergies to dogs, or restricting service dogs from areas of the zoo where the animal on display is a natural prey or natural predators of dogs and the dog’s presence can become disruptive. In both cases, the dog still has to be allowed into other areas of the boarding school or zoo.
If the animal is excluded for one of these reasons, the business does still have to serve the owner without the animal if possible.
It is important to keep all of the information above in mind, but also to remember that every business is different. These situations can vary based on the business and the goods or services provided. If you still have questions about how to comply with the ADA, it can be very helpful to speak with a lawyer that knows business law.
Helpful Statutes and Cases
The US Department of Justice’s “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA”
Alboniga v. School Bd. of Broward County Fla., 87 F. Supp. 3d 1319 – Dist. Court, SD Florida 2015