By Deborah J. Hopkins, January 2, 2024
Philadelphia baseball fans may recall a few months ago when a man attempted to bring his emotional support alligator to a Phillies game. The animal was denied entrance. We’ve written about service animals and emotional support animals in this space, so if you’re not familiar, please check that out first, then meet me back here for a summary of a semi-recent case involving an employee’s request for a dog in the workplace, Dona A. v. SSA, EEOC No. 2022000745 (May 9, 2022).
The complainant in this case had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), major depressive disorder (MDD), and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because of these conditions, she struggled with her energy levels, motivation to move, concentration, memory, thinking, and sleep, and experienced a “fearful emotional state.” She requested 15 accommodations, including that her dog be permitted to come to work with her, as it would “assist to regain control during a mental/emotional crises and fear by recovering orientation of time and place. Promotes energy levels to rise, engage social interaction and preventing social withdrawal, and balance assistance due [to] dizziness and occasional balance challenges.” Id. at 8.
The agency denied the request for the dog based on insufficient medical documentation, lingering questions about the dog’s training, and whether it was a true service animal trained to perform a function or was an emotional support dog. The agency reasoned that the complainant’s need for a dog was not based on medical expertise but on the complainant’s personal belief that her dog would help alleviate her stress. The agency also argued that the medical note suggested six possible accommodations and that the complainant’s physician did not state the dog would “solve” the complainant’s medical issues.
The AJ agreed with the agency and granted summary judgment, finding no violation of the Rehabilitation Act, based on three factors:
(1) the record failed to include adequate medical documentation to support Complainant’s need for a service dog;
(2) the record failed to support a determination that Complainant’s dog met the qualifications to work as a service dog; and
(3) the Agency offered, in lieu of a service dog, effective alternative accommodations which Complainant declined.
Id. at 3.
The EEOC, however, found summary judgment improper because of several unresolved facts including:
- Whether medical documentation supported that the complainant had an actual need for a service dog.
- Whether the complainant’s dog was a service dog or an emotional support animal.
- Whether there were any effective alternative accommodations possible.
The EEOC addressed one of the medical notes the complainant provided, which said: “Patient reports a lot of relief in symptoms when she has her pet with her. Patient reports that her pet is able to identify and wake her up when she is having nightmares. Patient feels that having her pet may help with the stress level at work. Patient may have this opportunity at work if such accommodation is at all possible.” Id. at 10.
The EEOC remanded the case for a hearing, as there were material facts in dispute.