The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has filed suit in Florida federal court against a trucking company who allegedly failed to accommodate, refused to hire and retaliated against a veteran for his use of an emotional support dog for his post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorder. The petition, filed in the Middle District of Florida, alleges that the defendant, CRST International Inc./CRST Expedited, Inc. (“CRST”) intentionally deprived Leon Laferriere of employment opportunities due to his disability.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, Laferriere applied for a truck driving position and was admitted to a truck driver training program. Prior to beginning the program, he disclosed his disabilities and use of a service dog to CRST. Laferriere’s psychiatrist prescribed him an emotional support/service animal to assist him in coping with his disabilities. Laferriere allegedly requested a reasonable accommodation—being allowed to drive with his service dog. He successfully completed the training program, but was not permitted to advance to the next steps in the orientation process because it required over- night travel and Laferriere’s use of a service dog conflicted with CRST’s “no pet” policy. Laferriere informed CRST that he believed its “no pet” policy violated the ADA. The EEOC also claims that certain CRST personnel pressured Laferriere “to leave his service animal at home.” CRST rescinded Laferriere’s offer without participating in the interactive process.

Laferriere filed an EEOC Charge on August 13, 2015 alleging violations of Title I and Title V of the ADA. The EEOC issued a cause determination on December 15, 2015. After failing to reach an acceptable conciliation agreement, the EEOC instituted suit. A representative from the EEOC stated, “The use of a trained service dog can be a reasonable accommodation. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to an employee with a disability.”

Federal regulations implementing Titles II and III of the ADA defines service dog as follows:

Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal's presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.

ADA regulations generally instruct public entities and places of public accommodations to permit the use of service animals by individuals with a disability, subject to certain exceptions. However, the regulations implementing Title I of the ADA (requiring equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities) are largely silent on service animals.

Although in its very early stages, the EEOC’s stance on emotional support dogs raises interesting issues regarding an employer’s ability to regulate the workplace. It remains to be seen how a federal court will ultimately view the EEOC’s position in regard to CRST’s actions and reasonable accommodation under the ADA. However, employers would be wise to treat all such requests for service animals in the workplace as requests for accommodations, triggering the interactive process to determine if such a request is reasonable.