Dog-Gone It . . . Says the Eighth Circuit

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

Earlier this week, the Eighth Circuit ruled a woman with Type I diabetes was not entitled to bring her service dog to work as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Samantha Howard, as a Type I diabetic, is unable to detect when her blood sugar is dangerously low. Howard began working as a pharmacist in a medical center ran by the City of Sedalia Missouri in 2019. Upon hire, Howard disclosed her Type I diabetes, and her supervisor allowed her to keep an emergency stash of food and drink at her desk.

However, Howard did not disclose that she was on a waiting list for a diabetic-alert service dog.

A service dog, Corry, became available for Howard in June 2020. Corry can smell when Howard’s blood sugar is low and alert her to help prevent and mitigate diabetic episodes.

Howard initially informed the medical center that she would need to have Corry by her side for six months while they completed proper training. She requested the medical center allow her to bring Corry into the pharmacy, excluding sterile areas.

The medical center denied Howard’s request, citing a concern of “potential risk[] of contamination.” The medical center attempted to find different accommodations, even proposing a third-party determine the risk of contamination by a service dog. But Howard would not accept any accommodation other than having Corry by her side.

Howard quit her job at the medical center in September 2020. She filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Missouri alleging that the medical center failed to make reasonable accommodations in violation of the ADA.

After a four-day jury trial, Howard won at the District Court. But the city appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

It appears the Eighth Circuit may be more cat-people. Last year, the Eighth Circuit heard a similar case to Howard’s, originating from the Eastern District of Arkansas. Perry Hopman, a train conductor and a military veteran suffering from PTSD and migraines, requested to bring his service dog onto the freight trains while he worked. Hopman was able to perform the essential functions of his job without accommodations. The question became whether Hopman was denied “equal benefits and privileges of employment” because he was not permitted to bring his service dog onto the trains. 

The trial court rejected Hopman’s theory that “benefits and privileges of employment” included freedom to work without mental or psychological pain. The Eighth Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision, but for slightly different reasons. It ruled that under the ADA, a benefit and privilege of employment must assist an individual in performing the duties of their job.

Although Hopman’s service dog eased symptoms of PTSD and migraine, the dog was not necessary for him to perform his job. Therefore, Hopman’s employer did not violate the ADA by denying his accommodation request to bring his dog onto the freight trains.

Similarly, in Howard’s case, the Eight Circuit found that Howard did not need her service dog, Corry, to perform the essential functions of her job. While it is true that Corry would have assisted Howard in maintaining her blood sugar while she worked, the Court said her claim is essentially the same as Hopman’s. The Court believed Howard was seeking the freedom from “physical and emotional pain,” which is not a “benefit and privilege of employment.” Thus, the Eighth Circuit reversed the prior jury decision from the Western District of Missouri (talk about a “ruff” day).

More broadly, employers are not required to provide personal items to employees as an accommodation. A personal item is something that assists an employee throughout their daily activities. For example, employers may not be required to provide personal items such as:  eyeglasses, contact lenses, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, etc.

In other words, if an employee has demonstrated their ability to perform essential functions of their job without accommodation, employers are not necessarily required to provide an accommodation to assist that employee in their daily activities. Certainly, there are reasons why an employer may choose to do so, but every employer has different limitations.

Written by Christina Charikofsky. Christina is a summer associate at Kollman & Saucier and a rising third-year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law.


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