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Every Dog Has Its Day (In Court): Teacher May Go to Trial Over School’s Denial of Chihuahua at Work

In a recent decision out of South Carolina, a federal judge ruled that a teacher may proceed to trial on her disability discrimination claim against her school district for declining to allow her Chihuahua to accompany her at work in the classroom.  Clark v. Sch. Dist. Five of Lexington & Richland Ctys., No. 3:15-cv-2664-CMC-PJG, 2017 BL 100456 (D.S.C. Mar. 29, 2017).

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees when the employer has notice of the disability and an accommodation would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.  In determining a reasonable accommodation at work, employers and employees should engage in an interactive discussion process to (1) identify the employee’s precise limitations caused by the disability and (2) explore potential reasonable accommodations to overcome those limitations.  29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(3).

In Clark, the plaintiff had a history of anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and PTSD as a result of being trapped in a closet during a hurricane in 1989.  In 2008, Clark became a special needs teacher with Lexington and Richmond County schools (the “District”).  She adopted a Chihuahua puppy named Pearl and desired to train Pearl as a therapy dog for her students and for treatment of her own anxiety and PTSD, which caused her at times to have panic attacks while working at the school.  The school permitted Pearl to join Clark in the classroom from 2011 to 2013.  After changing locations for the 2013-2014 academic year, however, the school banned dogs, causing Clark to request that Pearl be allowed to  accompany her as a service dog for the treatment of her own conditions.

Clark formally requested accommodations in June 2013.  After the parties met, the District denied Clark’s request to bring Pearl to school, taking the position that Pearl was an “emotional support or comfort dog” and not a “service animal” under the ADA.  The District also asserted that allowing Pearl would not be a reasonable accommodation because some students could be allergic to and/or afraid of Pearl.  It suggested alternatively that Clark could treat her conditions by wearing a weighted vest or arranging to remove herself from her classroom at the onset of a panic attack.

Clark refused to try the school’s suggestions.  She did not ask for a different accommodation, but rather insisted that Pearl was necessary for proper treatment of her conditions.  She initiated a grievance and hearing process, and the School Board ultimately upheld the decision to deny Clark the use of Pearl at the school.  Meanwhile, Clark continued to have panic attacks at the school, causing her to retire after the 2014-2015 academic year.

Clark sued the District under the ADA, claiming it failed to provide her with reasonable accommodations for her disability. Clark was able to successfully defend against the school board’s motion for summary judgment, which means that the district court found there were sufficient questions of material fact to take the case to a jury trial.  Among them remains the question of whether both parties’ proposed accommodations were reasonable.

Another question remains as to whether the District failed to engage in the interactive process with Clark to identify a reasonable accommodation.  In essence, Clark argued that the school had a duty to engage, and that she was forced to file a grievance in order to obtain any interaction.  The District countered that it engaged in the process, but that Clark broke down that process by failing to try the school’s recommended accommodations.  Now, a jury may be tasked to decide the answers to those questions.

The case is a good reminder to employers that the ADA imposes a duty to engage in a discussion and make a good faith effort to reach a reasonable accommodation for ADA disabled employees.  As a result, an employer faced with a request for accommodation must work with employees requesting an accommodation by consulting with them and working to a see if their request is reasonable and, if not, is a there a suitable alternative.

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