A service dog is a specially trained animal which helps persons with disabilities and impairments manage their medical condition. Such dogs have been regularly used for years, for example, to assist veterans and other persons suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD"). Yet it's clear that many employers and operators of businesses do not understand the special role these animals play for disabled people, nor do they appreciate their legal obligations to those who need such animals.
The Right To A Service Animal
These dogs are not "pets," as is so often argued by obstinate owners of premises where such animals are denied access. They are, in fact, a form of therapeutic treatment. For individuals who have trouble understanding this concept, we sometimes describe such service animals as a "furry wheelchair." There is no true difference between these service dogs, on the one hand, and wheelchairs, scooters or crutches, on the other.
New Jersey has enacted specific laws to protect the usage of service dogs both in public life and employment. For instance, New Jersey law specifically provides:
"Any person with a disability accompanied by a service or guide dog trained by a recognized training agency or school is entitled, with his dog, to the full and equal enjoyment, advantages, facilities and privileges of all public facilities..."
But what does this mean in plain English?
For starters, it means that no public place such as a restaurant, store, hotel or park can deny a person access because he or she needs and has a service dog. For instance, a hotel cannot deny a person a room simply because it is worried about cleaning up after the dog. Similarly, a store or a mall cannot deny a patron the opportunity to shop simply because he or she has a service dog.
New Jersey law also provides that:
"Unless it can be clearly shown that a person's disability would prevent such person from performing a particular job, it is an unlawful employment practice to deny to an otherwise qualified person with a disability the opportunity to obtain or maintain employment, or to advance in position in his job, solely because such person is a person with a disability or because such person is accompanied by a service or guide dog."
This is a very high standard and makes it difficult for an employer to deny an employee the right to use a service dog at work.
The law even covers service dogs in the housing context. Landlords and property owners cannot deny a rental simply because the tenant has or obtains a service animal. Importantly, property owners also may not charge additional rent because of the presence of a service dog. However, the dog's owner does remain liable for any damage done to the property by the dog.
Addressing Service Animal Discrimination
If you have been denied employment or access to a public place because of your need for a service animal, you may have a claim for discrimination. This area of the law is filled with nuance and so it is important that you consult with a qualified attorney.
Costello & Mains advocates for victims of disability discrimination in employment, schools, housing and places of public accommodation. We may be able to obtain damages or other remedies for you, and nearly all such work is done on a contingent basis. We realize no fee unless we're successful.
Here are some practical tips:
1. Not just anyone can walk around with a dog and call it a "service dog." It must be medically or therapeutically necessary. Consult with an appropriate medical or mental health professional.
2. In dealing with persons or entities who are not familiar with service dogs, even in the face of hostility or ignorance, do your best to remain calm and rational. Do not conduct yourself in a way which gives the property owner another reason to eject you or bar entry.
3. The term "service dog" is not specifically defined in the statute. In fact, it refers to one which is trained by a recognized training agency or school. So make sure your dog is fully trained and carry a copy of that training documentation.
If you have any questions at all concerning these issues, contact us at Costello & Mains.