Walking the walk on service dogs in the workplace

By Gail Cohen, Director-Employment Law/Compliance

& Marti Cardi, VP-Product Compliance

Bradley Arndt v. Ford Motor Company, 2017 WL 1196442 (E.D. Michigan March 29, 2017)

If you’ve been in a shopping center or an airport lately then you know that the prevalence of service dogs is on the increase (I love those vests!).  For employers, however, there are still many challenges in addressing an employee’s request for a service dog (or other animal) as an accommodation in the workplace.  In the case of Bradley Arndt v. Ford Motor Company, Ford applied sound ADA practices to maneuver through unfamiliar territory.

Bradley Arndt was a Supervisor at Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant.  He suffers from PTSD following his extensive military service, which included several combat deployments.  In February 2013, after about six months of tenure, he approached his then-direct supervisor indicating he was having issues with his PTSD at work, and mentioned bringing his service dog, Cadence, to work (I love that name!).  While his supervisor initially expressed enthusiasm for the idea, he became concerned about potential safety and quality issues.  Shortly after Bradley mentioned bringing Cadence to work, he emailed an HR representative for Ford and reported that he had missed work due to his PTSD and asked if could bring his service dog to work.  The HR rep thanked him for his email and told him she would look into his request.

HR provided Bradley with a Disability Reasonable Accommodation Request form to complete, and he did so, also providing a letter of the functions his service dog could provide to him in the workplace, which he described as sensing when he is having an anxiety attack, calming him down, and keeping people away from him.  Bradley indicated that just having the dog nearby “provide[d] a great deal of comfort and security… thus giving me the utmost confidence to perform my job.”

Shortly after submitting his request form, Bradley met with the physician at the plant regarding his request.  The doctor asked Bradley to provide a release to facilitate communication with the VA personnel treating his PTSD and told Bradley that the doctor would be working with HR to determine whether accommodation could be made, but also noted health and safety concerns with a dog in the manufacturing facility.  The very next day, Bradley withdrew his request.  Apparently, the doctor mentioned the possibility of a transfer to the Dearborn location. Bradley informed the HR rep that he did not want to go to Dearborn because he understood that the city had a large population of Arabs and that seeing women ”walking around in burkas”  might trigger his PTSD.  He also told HR that he was withdrawing his request because he “didn’t want to be a bother.” HR told him it wasn’t a bother and that they needed to engage in the interactive process.  After he insisted on withdrawing the request for accommodation to bring Cadence to work, HR told him to put the withdrawal of his request in writing, which he did on March 15, 2013.

Bradley took medical leaves for his PTSD. Upon his return from a second such leave, on February 21, 2014, he submitted a return to work note from his treating physician indicating he could return to work as of February 20, 2014 “with the presence of a service dog, Cadence.”  That same day, he completed another Disability Accommodation Request Form asking for a “service dog at work.”  The form invited him to specify the job functions he was having difficulty performing, as well as limitations his condition posed which interfered with his ability to perform his job.  Bradely’s answers did not, however, provide that information.

Because the plant had not previously dealt with a request to bring a service dog to work, HR placed Bradley on a “no work available” or “unfit to work” status so that he could continue to receive his fully salary and benefits while Ford looked into his request.  On March 4, 2014, HR and Bradley’s supervisor met with him to discuss his request.  They asked Bradley to identify the aspects of his job he could not perform without his service dog.  In this meeting, Bradley insisted that he could perform all of the aspects of his job and that he just needed to have his dog to “alleviate environmental factors.”    After the meeting, HR wrote a letter to Bradley’s doctor asking clarifying questions, provided the doctor with a job description, and posed very specific questions:  which job functions were rendered difficult for Bradley to perform due to his condition, how the requested accommodation helped him perform his job, and whether there were other accommodations that might be offered.  On April 4, 2014, Bradley returned the completed information from his physician. The doctor opined that she was unaware of any job functions he couldn’t perform, though she believed that having his service dog under his desk at work might calm him so he could complete his job duties.

HR arranged a second meeting with Bradley to discuss his request to bring his service dog to work.  That meeting took place on May 13, 2014.  Bradley brought his dog to the meeting. Humes asked him what job functions he felt he could not perform without accommodations.  Bradley insisted he had already answered the question several times, placed his Ford badge on the desk and said that if Humes could not give him an answer by the following Monday morning, he was quitting.  Bradley filed a lawsuit, accusing Ford of failing to reasonably accommodate his PTSD.

Ford won this lawsuit on summary judgment. In its decision, the court emphasized that Bradley failed to show that having his service dog with him at all times in the manufacturing facility would enable him to perform his job.  In addition, the court rejected Bradley’s contention that a three-month interactive process demonstrated that Ford failed to participate in good faith. In doing so, the court acknowledged that Ford had legitimate concerns about Bradley bringing his dog to work and whether doing so would enable him to perform his job and effectively calm him if his PTSD were triggered at work.  Ford was able to show that, during that three-month timeframe, they were actively engaged in investigating the possibility of accommodating Bradley’s request, including asking other facilities whether and how they had successfully allowed a service animal accommodation at their plants  and walking the plant floor with the safety manager to have her identify any safety or health concerns.  Ford also put Bradley on a fully paid leave (which is itself a reasonable accommodation) while they were doing that important research.  Ultimately, the court concluded, by quitting instead of continuing the interactive discussion, it was Bradley who was responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process.  Because of this, Bradley could not show that Ford failed to engage in the interactive process nor that Ford had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing his requested accommodation to bring Cadence to work with him.

Pings for Employers:

The Arndt case provides a great outline for what employers should do when an employee requests to bring a service animal to work as an ADA accommodation:

  • Get information. When an employee asks for an ADA accommodation, the employer has the right to certain information, including how the employee’s condition limits his ability to perform his essential job functions and how the requested accommodation(s) is going to help him do so.
  • Follow the usual ADA process. A service dog is like any other accommodation in this regard – if your employee says he needs to bring his dog to work, you can and should start the interactive process to understand what job functions are impacted by his condition and how the dog will help him perform his job.
  • Conduct and individualized assessment. It is understandable that an employer’s first reaction to a request for a service dog as an accommodation would be to balk – but it is imperative to conduct an individualized analysis and keep an open mind in the process.
  • Accommodation must be effective. Like any accommodation, granting the employee the right to bring a service dog to work requires not only that it be reasonable, but that it is effective.  This is where Bradley failed in communicating with Ford.
  • A caveat. Ford and the court seemed to focus on whether the service dog Cadence enabled Bradley to perform any specific essential functions of his position.  This was a tall order.  Perhaps Bradley could have made an argument that by keeping him calm, Cadence enabled him to perform his job overall by being present and functional.  Another court, another time, might have found Bradley’s evidence in this regard sufficient to support a claim of failure to accommodate.  Of course, Bradley still had the problem of walking out before the interactive process was complete.
  • Give it a try. One of the best things an employer can do in the accommodation process is to give the employee’s request a trial.   In the case of a service animal, if the presence of the animal causes problems or the accommodation isn’t effective to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the position, you have tried and you have solid evidence – not just speculation – that the accommodation isn’t effective.Then restart the interactive process to determine whether an alternate accommodation might be reasonable and effective.
  • Other concerns. Sometimes a service animal in the workplace can create additional problems, such as complaints from other employees with animal allergies, fear of dogs, etc.  If the co-worker’s issue is also a disability, you may need to seek a compromise, such as designating restricted areas where the service animal cannot go or providing air purifiers.  Also, the employer can establish ground rules – like keeping the dog on a leash, and having the employee be responsible at all times for its care and behavior.
  • Ask JAN! For more assistance always remember to work with the Job Accommodation Network at http://askjan.org/ .   JAN is a free, not-for-profit organization that focuses on assisting employees and employers with navigating the ADA – and you can talk with a live person if you call the number on the website.

MATRIX CAN HELP!

Matrix’s ADA Advantage leave management system and our dedicated ADA accommodation team helps employers maneuver through the accommodation process.  We will initiate an ADA claim for your employee, conduct the medical intake if needed, assist in identifying reasonable accommodations, document the process, and more.  Contact Matrix at 1-800-866-2301 to learn more about these services.

2 thoughts on “Walking the walk on service dogs in the workplace

  1. Marti & Gail – Thank you for the thorough research and description of this situation. Quite a complex scenario and an excellent example of the accommodation process in action. Wow – lots of good info! Thank you.

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