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Service and Other Animals in the D.C. Workplace

December 3, 2018

Service and Other Animals in the D.C. Workplace

An employer may choose to allow animals in the workplace for a variety of reasons.  In most situations, this is simply a matter of the employer’s policy and practice, and its lease with the landlord.  In certain cases, however, an employer may be required by law to permit an animal in the workplace, and in other cases, an employer’s ability to allow animals in the workplace may be limited by federal and D.C. disability laws.

Public Accommodations in the District of Columbia Must Admit “Service Animals”

Both federal and D.C. law give a person with a disability the right to be accompanied by a “service animal” in a “public accommodation”—any place where the general public is invited.  But the District’s protections are significantly broader.  The D.C. Council recently expanded the definition of “service animal” to “implicitly include emotional support animals”—an animal that assists a person with a mental disability.  Currently under D.C. law, a “service animal” is one “that is specially trained to assist a person who meets the definition of persons with physical or mental disabilities, and is one which a person with physical or mental disabilities relies on for disability-related assistance.”  It further defines “persons with physical or mental disabilities” as “an individual who has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that substantially limits the ability to assist one’s self, to perform manual tasks, to engage in an occupation, to live independently, to walk, to see, or to hear.”

Although the District’s definition is broad, whether an animal qualifies as a service animal still depends on the particular facts of the situation.  The animal must not be solely for companionship.  It must be specially trained and relied upon for disability assistance, and the handler must have a qualifying medically determinable physical or mental impairment.

Federal and Local Disability Law May Limit Animals in the Workplace

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (which applies to employers with 15 or more employees) and the D.C. Human Rights Act (which applies to all employers) may require employers to be flexible on how they manage rules about animals in the workplace, up to and including barring them altogether.  If another employee has an allergy or some other health condition that is exacerbated by the presence of the animal, the employee’s condition may be considered as a disability, triggering the requirement under these laws that the employer make a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s condition.  In this case, however, an employer cannot prohibit a service animal if the workplace is a public accommodation.  Even if the workplace is not a public accommodation, the service animal may be a reasonable accommodation that must be coordinated with the reasonable accommodations for other employees.  However, if the animal has no disability-related function, the reasonable accommodation may include prohibiting the animal from the workplace.

 

This material is for informational purposes only and should not be relied on for legal advice.  For legal assistance with an employment matter, select the “Contact Us” box on the homepage, or call us at 202-795-9999.