Legal Issues Arise When People With Service Dogs are Turned Away

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 23, 2012

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Over the last couple of months, three incidents involving the refusal to accommodate service dogs have attracted the attention of the legal community.

  • In June, a cab driver in Denver was suspended for forcing a blind woman’s service dog to ride in the trunk because he was allergic.  When the blind customer and her dog attempted to get into the cab, the driver, citing his allergies, forced her to either put the dog in the trunk or not take the ride. 
  • This month, an ex-cab driver in Connecticut is filing a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer after he was fired for refusing to pick up a blind customer because of his seeing-eye dog.  Citing his fear of dogs as a medical condition known as Cynophobia, the cab driver has claimed that his firing for a refusal to pick up the blind passenger is discrimination against his condition. 
  • Finally, a customer of an Atlanta area Popeyes Chicken is filing a lawsuit after the establishment had him forcibly removed by the police after he refused to leave because his service dog was not welcome.  The man, a diabetic who uses his dog to detect dangerous fluctuations in his blood sugar, was asked to leave because children in the restaurant became nervous about the dog’s presence. 

These incidents highlight issues that can arise between businesses and individuals who require service dogs in order to get through their daily activities.  In each of these cases, the business (or cab) had a seemingly legitimate concern with the presence of the dog – in one case it was allergies and in two a fear of dogs caused a potential disruption to service. 

Working against each business, however, is the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not allow for discrimination based on a disability.  In each case, the business provider either altered or refused service because of the requirements of the customer’s disability.  Even the cab driver who is citing his fear of dogs as a competing disability likely faces an uphill battle – the law specifically protects service dogs and the people who need them.

The Department of Justice has recently released a statement giving guidance on what happens when a business has a problem with seeing-eye dogs.  The DOJ states, “Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.”  If a service dog does cause a disruption to a business, the business must provide a reasonable accommodation to the customer rather than refuse service.

In each of these cases, it appears the business provider failed to provide reasonable accommodation.  Only the cab driver who required the service dog to ride in the trunk provided any accommodation – and it will be hard for him to argue his decision was reasonable.

Service dogs have become much more common in recent years, and are not just used by the blind.  There are service dogs for several disabilities, and businesses need to accommodate them regardless of the potential disruption.  If the business cannot provide the standard level of service due to a dog, it must provide a reasonable accommodation immediately.   The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it very difficult to alter service because of a service dog, and a few recent incidents demonstrate how important it is for a business to be aware of this law.

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