ADA didn’t require hospital to allow nurse’s service dog, 6th Circuit says

Dive Brief:

  • Hurley Medical Center in Michigan did not have to accommodate a nursing student with a panic disorder by letting her keep her service dog with her at all times, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Nov. 9 in Bennett v. Hurley Medical Center.
  • The nursing student trained the dog to alert her when she was about to have a panic attack so she could take her medication in advance and avoid a “full-on” attack, according to court documents. On the first day of her rotation, a patient and a nursing unit clerk separately asked if a dog was in the hospital because they were having allergic reactions, court records said. Hurley allegedly evaluated the situation and revoked its permission allowing the dog accompany the nursing student when she saw patients. It offered instead to let her keep the dog in a crate on a different floor and take breaks to see him.
  • She rejected the offer and sued Hurley, alleging its actions violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A lower court ruled in the employer’s favor and the 6th Circuit upheld that ruling on appeal. Title II covers public entities and is enforced through U.S. Department of Justice regulations, the appeals court noted. Per the regulations, Hurley reasonably decided the service dog posed a direct threat to its patients and that the accommodations necessary to mitigate the risk of his allergens weren’t reasonable, the panel held. “Without knowing which patients are allergic to dogs and considering the significant concerns implicated by shifting patients and staff …, Hurley did not fail to provide Plaintiff with a reasonable accommodation,” the court said.

Dive Insight:

In the employment context — governed by Title I of the ADA and enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — service animals should be considered through an interactive process like any other request, an HR specialist and service dog handler recommended during an EEOC-sponsored panel discussion in 2021.

A person requesting a service animal as a job accommodation doesn’t need to present documentation of its status, such as being listed on a registry or having a certification, an ADA compliance chief for a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services division explained to attendees. Rather, employers should focus on two questions, she said: Is the animal required because of a disability? And, what work or task has your animal been trained for?

The EEOC has cautioned against rejecting service animals based on unfounded assumptions regarding safety, as the EEOC alleged in a lawsuit against Hobby Lobby. The case involved a store cashier whose service dog helped her with her anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the allegations, the cashier submitted an accommodation request for the service dog, along with medical documentation, but the store’s district manager and HR leaders decided the dog would present safety issues — even though customers were allowed to bring service dogs and pet dogs to the store. In May, Hobby Lobby settled the case for $50,000.

Employers should also be aware of misconceptions about which environments must be truly sterile, the 2021 panelists advised. For example, in 2022, a jury awarded a pharmacist $134,000 in damages after her employer, a Missouri-based regional hospital, rejected her request to have a service dog at work, allegedly telling her the pharmacy had to be sterile.

In her complaint, the pharmacist explained that the service dog helped with her diabetic condition, which could cause her seizures and loss of consciousness. She alleged the hospital told her that “various laws and guidance” required the pharmacy to be sterile, but it didn’t maintain the pharmacy in accordance with cleanliness standards expected of a sterile environment.

By contrast, Hurley Medical Center had legitimate reasons for determining the nursing student’s dog posed a direct threat to patients’ health and safety, the 6th Circuit said. For one, Hurley did not exclude the dog pursuant to a blanket policy and initially allowed him to accompany the nursing student on her rotations, the court emphasized. But on his first day, he caused allergic reasons; one affected the unit clerk so severely that she had to leave work.

The medical center also engaged in a good faith interactive process, the appeals court noted. “Hurley repeatedly engaged with Plaintiff’s suggest accommodations, consulted with medical experts to determine whether they would be feasible, and communicated to Plaintiff its concerns,” the court said.

In the Title I context, experts have cautioned that employers cannot deny an employee’s request to bring a service animal to work because of another employee’s allergy. Employers should aim to accommodate both employees, an attorney said an employment law conference, and could consider separating the workers and implementing improved cleaning methods.