A federal court recently held that Hurley Medical Center (“Hurley”) conducted an individualized inquiry and reasonably concluded that a nursing student intern’s accommodation request to bring her service dog with her as part of her clinical nursing rotation posed a direct threat jeopardizing the health and safety of patients and staff. The court also held that Hurley properly engaged in the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (“ADA”) interactive process in response to the student intern’s accommodation request.
Plaintiff in this action was a nursing student intern who suffered from anxiety disorder and a history of panic attacks. She trained her service dog, primarily by herself, to detect her rising anxiety and signal her to take her medication before she could recognize it. As a nursing student intern, plaintiff was assigned to complete clinical training rotations at Hurley. Her initial assigned rotation was on floor 7E where she would follow doctors and nurses during rounds of patients’ rooms. Prior to the start of this rotation, plaintiff requested to bring her service dog as an accommodation for her anxiety. Hurley initially approved the plaintiff’s accommodation request.
However, on plaintiff’s first day of rounds with her service dog, employees and a patient complained of allergic reactions due to the service dog’s presence on the floor. Hurley reevaluated the accommodation, discussing with plaintiff the possibility of putting the service dog in a bodysuit designed to limit shedding and minimize others’ allergic reactions. Plaintiff objected, believing the bodysuit would not work for the service dog’s breed. Hurley also offered an accommodation to allow plaintiff’s service dog to be crated on a different floor, allowing for plaintiff to take breaks to spend time with her service dog. Hurley also offered tutoring to make up for any deficit that occurred by plaintiff not being physically present for any rounds during the rotation. During the interactive process, Hurley withdrew its approval for plaintiff’s accommodation to bring a service dog because it created an unreasonably high probability that patient care would be adversely affected.
Plaintiff finished her rotations on Hurley’s floor 7E without her service dog and subsequently brought suit against Hurley alleging that it violated Title II of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act for denying her a reasonable accommodation.
Duty to Accommodate Under the ADA
The court dismissed plaintiff’s claims finding that Hurley properly conducted an individualized analysis and made a reasonable determination that the presence of the service dog constituted a direct threat to the health and safety of patients and staff given the service dog’s presence on floor 7E triggered an allergic reaction of staff and at least of one patient. Hurley properly considered and concluded that the allergens of plaintiff’s service dog were especially dangerous as floor 7E included immunocompromised patients. Finally, Hurley did not fail to engage in the interactive process, as required under the ADA, because its communication of possible alternatives demonstrated that the interactive process remained open.
Prior to denying an accommodation request, employers must also conduct an individualized assessment as to whether such requested accommodation poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Additionally, employers must remember that the ADA’s required interactive process may be ongoing. An employer’s initial decision on an accommodation request may be drastically different from its final decision on an accommodation request.