Until recently, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations were quite broad in their definition of “service animal,” but that changed earlier this year. Now Maine, which had kept the definition loose in state law, also is tightening up on what constitutes a service animal.
Employers must provide reasonable accommodations not only for employees with disabilities but also for customers with disabilities. Employers that operate retail stores, banks, service centers, and other locations open to the public are probably places of public accommodation under the law.
Everyone knows that you have to allow a seeing-eye dog to accompany a blind customer into your place of business. But what about a seeing-eye miniature horse? Or a bunny whose mere presence keeps his owner’s anxiety at bay?
Until earlier this year, federal ADA regulations were quite broad in their definition of “service animal,” which included a dog “or another animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Therefore, under the former rule, you would probably have to let that customer with the seeing-eye miniature horse into your place of business. As of March 15 of this year, however, the U.S. Department of Justice’s new rules protect only service dogs.
Maine’s definition of service animal has continued to include “any animal” necessary to mitigate the effects of a disability or “any animal” individually trained to perform tasks for a disabled person. But effective September 28, Maine is adopting the federal definition of service animal as it applies to places of public accommodation. The new law specifically states, “Other species of animals [other than dogs], whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals.”
The new federal and Maine regulations not only clear up whether a monkey could be a service animal but also help define the line between Fluffy the pet Pekinese and Hero the guide golden doodle. The new federal regulations and state law now limit the definition of service animal to “a dog that is individually trained to do work for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Dogs that simply provide emotional support, companionship, or crime deterrence but are not individually trained to perform work related to their owner’s disability don’t qualify as service animals.
Currently, the new service animal definitions in federal law apply only to places of public accommodation and don’t specifically apply to employers. However, because the employer provisions in the ADA are silent on employees’ use of service animals, some federal courts have looked to the definitions in the public accommodations provisions for guidance. For example, a Washington, D.C., court and a Michigan court both found that unless an employee’s animal is specifically trained to deal with his disability, any request to bring the animal to work isn’t “reasonable” and therefore doesn’t need to be accommodated.
Accommodation requests from employees involving an animal should be evaluated for their reasonableness, as any other request would be. You shouldn’t exclude service animals simply because you fear they would be an annoyance or a distraction, but you may certainly exclude them if they are a danger in the workplace. Like so many other ADA issues, you are well advised to evaluate a request for a service animal at work on a case-by-case basis.