A Case Worthy of Ushering in the Dog Days of Summer

July 6, 2023

By: Howard M. Miller

As an avid, albeit misguided, reader of breaking news alerts, I am increasingly feeling like the narrator in the old Tom Petty song, “Jammin Me.” If you are like me and are feeling truly exhausted from the daily bombardment of bad news on all fronts, any distraction can be of welcome relief, particularly when that distraction involves “man’s best friend” – dogs.

Now, before we go any further, a couple of disclaimers are in order: I have had dogs as pets my whole life, I view dogs as family members, I enjoy quoting one of my daughter’s theology professors who is keen to point out what the word dog spelled backwards reveals, and I will almost invariably take the side of a dog in a litigated controversy.

This brings us to the June 23, 2023 decision in the case of Meyer v. City of Chehalis, Case No. 3:22 -cv-05008 (W.D. Washington). In Meyers, a firefighter brought a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination alleging that he was denied a reasonable accommodation in the form of a service dog to help him with his post-traumatic stress disorder.

To be sure, the seeming implosion of service animals has created a great deal of angst among employers, retail establishments and airlines (can a service iguana fly in the main cabin?). Indeed, a McDonald’s in Wisconsin was faced with a patron escorted by a service kangaroo (true story begging the question: where does one buy a kangaroo in Wisconsin?). But I digress.

Back to the Meyer’s case, as part of the City’s defense, it sought to compel the service dog to submit to an evaluation by an independent expert to determine what exactly the dog had been trained to do. In addressing what was noted to be a case of first impression, the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. The Court held that although the federal rules of civil procedure could theoretically be read broad enough to require such an examination, the Court rejected the City’s request.

The Court reasoned that the inquiry regarding what if anything the service dog is trained to do for the plaintiff’s PTSD “is not relevant nor proportional to the needs of the case.” This is because the primary inquiry is whether permitting the service dog would constitute an undue hardship to the employer. The Court further noted that “the focus on the specific service dog’s training appears to be an implicit concession by the City that a service dog trained to their standards would constitute a reasonable accommodation.”

Employers will undoubtedly be increasingly receiving requests by employees to bring emotional support and service dogs to the workplace. The EEOC has guidance materials on such requests, and we suggest that legal counsel be consulted before such a request is denied.

While the Meyer’s case is not binding in New York, it does portend that an employer hoping to rely on an independent evaluation of a service dog will be barking up the proverbial wrong tree. That said, should a court ever order a deposition of a service dog, I will want in on that.

For more information on this blog post, please contact Howard Miller or the Bond attorney with whom you are in regular contact.