On September 2, 2014, Judge Derrick K. Watson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii ruled that a Hertz manager who brought his dog to work without permission allegedly to help him cope with depression and an adjustment disorder may have unlawfully been denied reasonable accommodation and fired. Finding genuine issues of material fact, he denied summary judgment to the employer and sent the case to a jury to be decided. See Assaturian v. Hertz Corp., Case No. 1:13-CV-00299 (U.S. District Court, Hawaii).
Plaintiff John Assaturian began working for Hertz in 1989. Although he was disciplined for a loud verbal confrontation with a subordinate in 1998, he was promoted to “Location Manager” in 2004. That same year he was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative proctitis and ulcerative colitis. In 2008 he received a final warning following another confrontation with a co-worker during which he allegedly banged his fists on a table.
In May 2010, Assaturian and wife purchased “Sugar Bear,” a Shih Tzu, and obtained a “service animal card" for the dog to allow them to bring Sugar Bear to public places that generally prohibit animals. Later that year, Assaturian began bringing Sugar Bear to work, even though he had not requested prior permission to do so. Sugar Bear wasn’t kept on a leash, wondered throughout the workplace, and, according to co-workers, urinated on the floor.
Claims dog helps with "anger issues"
Approximately a year later, Hertz’ HR representative found out about Sugar Bear. When she mentioned the dog to Assaturian over the telephone, he proceeded to yell at her on this call and eventually hung up on her. Hertz maintained that Assaturian never mentioned during this discussion that he had a medical condition for which he needed his dog at work. Assaturian claimed that he told the HR representative that he had a service animal card and that Sugar Bear helped him with his “anger issues.” In any event, the HR professional testified that she told Assaturian during this call not to bring Sugar Bar to work unless he got a “certificate” or “prescription” from a physician supporting medical need for the dog.
In late November 2011, Assaturian began receiving treatment for depression, dysthemic disorder and adjustment disorder. After another co-worker complained that Assaturian had yelled at him and had suspended him from work in March 2012, Hertz terminated Assaturian’s employment.
Thereafter, Assaturian sued Hertz in state court under Hawaii law, claiming disability discrimination and retaliation. Hertz removed the case to federal court and eventually moved to dismiss all claims by way of summary judgment. Assaturian claimed that Hertz violated disability-related laws by its failure to engage in the required “interactive process” relating to persons with disabilities, its failure to accommodate him, and by its discriminatory discharge of him.
Judge says jury must decide
The judge ruled that a jury must decide whether the conversations Assaturian had with the HR representative about Sugar Bear in late 2011 amounted to a request for reasonable accommodation under the Hawaii Employment Practices Act. Assaturian’s allegedly referencing that he had a “service animal card” allowing him to bring Sugar Bear to work because the dog helped him “control his emotions” may have triggered further dialogue as to reasonable accommodations of his medical conditions. Hertz’s purported failure to follow-up on this information may have constituted a “breakdown in the interactive process” required when an employee requests a job accommodation, according to the judge. The judge concluded a jury ultimately must decide whether Hertz satisfied its obligations as to the accommodation process under disability-related laws.
Further, the judge found that there were triable questions regarding whether Hertz's decision makers knew at the time Assaturian was fired that his emotional issues were “symptomatic of his disability,” but fired him anyway. Thus, the lawfulness of Assaturian’s dismissal also will be determined by a jury at trial in the future.
This case underscores an employer’s obligation to engage in a dialogue with an employee with a disability promptly when it receives information that such employee may be requesting a “reasonable accommodation.” Whether allowing Assaturian to bring Sugar Bear to work constituted a “reasonable accommodation” depends, among other things, on whether the Shih Tzu could meaningfully assist with the employee’s anger issues, the degree of “hardship” presented to the workplace by the dog’s presence, and other possible accommodations that might have been available. The judge here seems to suggest that the employer may have been obligated to engage in a more comprehensive “interactive process” to discern possible further accommodation that could have been provided to Assaturian to assist him in avoiding the repeated outbreaks that eventually led to his dismissal. The failure to engage in such a process in a timely manner may preclude an employer from later disciplining an employee for behaviors that are “symptomatic of the disability” which, though perhaps appropriate for discipline, could have been avoided by thorough reasonable accommodation.