Update on Emotional Support Animals: Dept of Transportation Okays Miniature Ponies on Planes

One of the evolving areas of law for San Diego and California employers is the requirements for accommodating employees who need emotional support animals. Reasonable accommodations for an employee’s health issues is required by both federal and California law. Under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), reasonable accommodations are required for any employee “disability.” The term “disability” has been interpreted by the courts to cover emotional disabilities. A recent trend in treating mental health disorders is the use of emotional support animals. Increasingly, it seems that allowing an employee to keep an emotional support animal at work is being defined as a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.

A similar duty is required by California law under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Like the federal ADA, employers of five or more employees must provide “reasonable accommodations” for disabilities, whether they are physical or mental. Reasonable accommodation can include:

  • Changing job duties
  • Providing leave for medical care
  • Changing work schedules
  • Relocating the work area
  • Providing mechanical or electrical aids
  • And more

An emotional support animal could easily fit the definition of a reasonable accommodation under the FEHA even though, to date, there are no reported court cases directly addressing the issue.

However, federal agencies are weighing in on the question. Recently, the federal Department of Transportation (“DOT”) published guidance on the use of “service animals” for air travel. In general, service animals have been allowed on planes and on other forms of interstate transportation. The debate recently has been whether emotional support animals qualify. The main difference is that traditional service animals receive specific training for their tasks (such as guiding the blind). However, emotional support animals have no such training; their main benefit is being present with their human companion. The newly announced DOT guidance now includes a clear statement that emotional support animals are considered within the definition of “service animals.”

The issue has become newsworthy as a traveler recently was seen traveling with her emotional support miniature pony on a recent airline flight. See news report here.

Some have wondered and complained, but the new DOT guidelines give full authority to the airlines to allow support animals. As the article makes clear, however, airlines are drawing certain lines. Southwest Airlines has issued a list of animals that are not eligible to be on a flight. The list includes emotional support insects, spiders, rabbits, ferrets, or rodents. An emotional support peacock has also recently been denied the ability to fly.

For San Diego employers who may be dealing with these issues, the legal lesson is that emotional support animals are likely to be viewed by the courts as a reasonable accommodation. That being said, employers have some grounds for resisting certain kinds of emotional support animals. An accommodation is not “reasonable” if it is dangerous to other workers. This is the reason that Southwest Airline can ban certain types of animals. Employers can also request medical records and insist that the prescription of an emotional support animal comes from a doctor; not just the feelings of the employee. Employers can also limit the number of support animals and insist that only the prescribed animal be present with the employee.

Contact San Diego Corporate Law Today

For more information, contact attorney Michael Leonard, Esq., of San Diego Corporate Law. Mr. Leonard can be reached at (858) 483-9200 or via email. Mr. Leonard provides a full panoply of legal services for businesses including formation of corporate entities of all types. Like us on Facebook.

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