By Deborah Hopkins, April 20, 2021
While preparing the materials for an upcoming training session Ricky Rowe and I are presenting at FELTG’s annual Emerging Issues in Federal Employment Law virtual forum, I came across a case that I thought prudent to share – especially because, as return to work orders are issued in the coming months, agencies are likely to see an uptick in requests for service animals and emotional support animals in the workplace.
In a recent case at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the complainant suffered from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Because of her medical conditions, she requested an accommodation to bring her trained service dog, a golden doodle, to work. She informed the agency that her dog was scent-trained to recognize chemical shifts in her body when she was escalating into anxiety or panic attacks. The dog was trained to alert and calm her before she reached the panic stage. The complainant explained to agency management that her dog might bark in the process of alerting her to her escalating symptoms, as that was the dog’s alert mechanism.
The agency approved accommodation for a 30-day trial. During a meeting shortly thereafter, the dog repeatedly barked and was disruptive for more than 30 minutes. Because of the disruption, management began considering removing the interim accommodation, but did not take action.
The dog became even more disruptive in a subsequent meeting. According to agency management, the dog appeared impossible to handle. During the meeting, it continually barked, and jumped on the complainant multiple times, and she was unable to calm it down.
The complainant explained the dog’s behavior was an alert to her oncoming anxiety attacks. She said that the dog was trained to stand in front of her, put her paws on her shoulders and nuzzle her to calm her down. Agency management’s account of the events was that the dog was not nuzzling the complainant, but jumping on her and others in the workplace, and was uncontrollable.
As a result, the agency terminated the interim accommodation, stating that the dog was too disruptive and impossible to handle in the office. The agency invited the complainant to discuss alternative accommodations, including liberal use of leave when she was experiencing symptoms, but she maintained that other than having her service dog, there was no other useful accommodation.
The agency denied her request to keep the dog in the workplace, so she filed a complaint and the FAD found for the agency. On appeal, EEOC looked at the facts and said the agency was not obligated to allow the service dog in the workplace because the complainant “failed to provide evidence to adequately establish the need for the presence of her dog in order to assist her in performing [her] essential functions.” EEOC also said they “cannot reasonably conclude that the Agency’s decision to terminate its trial approval constitutes an unlawful failure to accommodate.” Kathie N. v. VA, EEOC No. 2019003312 (Sep. 22, 2020).
So remember, if an employee wants to bring a service animal into the workplace, having a disability is not enough. The employee must establish the need for the specific use or presence of the service animal as accommodation, and that no other accommodation would be effective. For more on this, join us for the session Barking Up the Wrong Tree? Service and Therapy Animals in the Workspace, part of Emerging Issues in Federal Employment Law, April 28. Hopkins@FELTG.com