Service Dog for Nursing Student Not a Reasonable Accommodation in Medical Facility
A federal district court recently ruled that a nursing student was not unlawfully discriminated against when she was not permitted to use her service dog to accompany her on patient rounds. In Bennett v. Hurley Medical Center the plaintiff suffered from generalized anxiety disorder along with panic attacks. She had a service dog, who accompanied her occasionally, and would alert her to oncoming episodes where she could then take medication and mitigate the damage from her conditions.
Plaintiff was a nursing student and needed to complete her clinical rounds where she would be around patients and interacting with them in very close proximity. Several of the patients were immunocompromised and had a variety of allergies. The student asked for permission to take her service dog on clinical rounds around the patients. The HR department of the medical center conferred with legal counsel and granted the accommodation. On the students first day of rounds, several patients suffered allergic reactions to the service dog. Some of the patients needed urgent medical assistance due to their allergic reactions.
The medical center reevaluated the accommodation and offered the student a variety of alternatives; some of which allowed her to use the service dog on floors without patients. The student rejected the options and filed a lawsuit.
ADA, Reasonable Accommodation, and Service Animals
Whether you are under Title I (Employment) or Title II (Public Accommodations), there are two general claims under the ADA: (1) intentional discrimination and (2) failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. The ADA requires an employer to engage in an interactive process with the employee in determining the feasibility of a reasonable accommodation. According to the court, Title II also requires this interactive process.
The Department of Justice’s “general rule” is that the use of service animals is reasonable as an accommodation under the ADA unless one of four exceptions apply:
- Granting access would fundamentally alter the nature of the program;
- The animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others;
- The animal is out of control; or
- The animal is not housebroken.
The court ruled the service dog was a direct threat to the health and safety of others. This is a heavy burden for defendants to prove, but the evidence supported the facilities’ position. The court focused on the fact the service dog was allowed into the facility and various patients suffered adverse health effects. The Court also found the health care facilities involvement in the interactive process with the student was significant. Finally, the facilities offer to allow the student to use the service dog, but on floors without patients, showed further good faith efforts to accommodate the student’s medical needs.
The case demonstrates the importance of having a robust policy to address accommodations and service animals.
Good Faith Efforts to Accommodate-the facilities attempt to accommodate the student and allow her to use the service animal provided the evidence it needed to prevail in court.
Use the Interactive Process -take steps to show the court, and others, you are trying to solve a problem without an inflexible rule. Interactive means a give and take and be open to other options as this facility was.
Individual Determination -the policy in this case did not bar all service animals, but only the service animal the student wanted to use and, even then, only around patients. Make an individual determination based on the facts of the case.