It’s Bring Your Dog to Work Day–at least it is now (every day) for one employee. Wait. How is that possible? Employers have a right to make rules, and those rules can include prohibiting pets in the workplace. So, how–and why might an employee be allowed to bring Rover to work, despite an employer saying “No”? Well, there are some circumstances where an employer might actually not be allowed to say “No.” Whaaaaaat? You heard that right. Is there a law that says so? Kind of. It’s the ADA/ADAAA. Bringing Rover to work might be a reasonable accommodation of a disability. Read on to learn more… As always, I’ve got a real, live case example for you. The name of the case is Hopman v Union Pacific Railroad. In a nutshell, here’s what went down:
Perry Hopman worked as an engineer at Union Pacific Railroad. Mr. Hopman was a combat veteran who served an 18-month tour in Iraq. During his tour of duty, he suffered a traumatic brain injury after a 50-foot fall from a helicopter. Mr. Hopman has PTSD. He suffers from flashbacks, depression, anxiety, and debilitating migraines. Is it any wonder? Mr. Hopman has a service dog, named Atlas. Atlas is a 125-pound Rottweiler, that received $10,000 worth of service training over two years and over 1,000 hours of training so he could: remind Mr. Hopman to take his medication, perceive a migraine onset (so Mr. Hopman could take medication before the migraine, avoiding the most severe symptoms), and to be a barrier between Mr. Hopman and others by providing space.
Mr. Hopman asked Union Pacific to allow him to take the dog with him to work, when he had overnight runs to another county, to accommodate his PTSD. Union Pacific denied the request. Specifically, Union Pacific’s stated reasons were: 1) concern over how the dog would react to dangerous conditions on a railroad, such as moving locomotives; 2) lack of infrastructure to support a dog on a train or on the road; and 3) an unmonitored dog would pose a safety risk to other employees. According to Mr. Hopman, Union Pacific refused to discuss the matter with him. After a lot of back and forth that I won’t bore you with here,
Mr. Hopman sued Union Pacific under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and under the Americans with Disabilities Act, citing a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation of a disability. Union Pacific argued and Mr. Hopman confirmed, that he had no issue with performing his essential job functions without the dog. Union Pacific, therefore, felt it was on solid ground when it argued that it did not have to allow him to bring the dog to work. The case went all the way to trial, and the jury disagreed and awarded Mr. Hopman a $250,000 verdict.
Wait. If Mr. Hopman, by his own admission, didn’t need the service dog to perform his job, then how is he entitled to bring his dog to work with him as an accommodation of his disability? The ADA also provides for reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities in order for them to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities.” The idea is to level the playing field between an otherwise qualified individual with a disability and other similarly situated employees. (The facts also showed that allowing the dog would not have cost Union Pacific anything and that in reality, the dog did not pose a direct threat to anyone.)
Now, this case is a US District Court case from the Eastern District of Arkansas. It’s therefore not binding anywhere else. That said, some other federal courts have ruled similarly. Many states also impose similar obligations. The point here is: Don’t assume that your obligations under the ADA (or similar state laws) apply only to enabling an otherwise qualified employee to perform their job functions. If an employee requests an accommodation that enables them to enjoy the same terms, privileges, benefits, and conditions as other similarly situated non-disabled employees, you should engage in the interactive process with the employee and try to provide that or another effective, reasonable accommodation.
They say every dog has its day. Looks like that will be every day for Atlas.
I think I’ve made my point. See you next time.
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