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Dodge $75K ADA Fine with Answers to Office Animal Policy FAQs

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Dodge $75K ADA Fine with Answers to Office Animal Policy FAQs

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Office Animal Policy

Whether patients are bringing pets to your office because it’s trendy or a medical necessity is not for you — or anyone in your practice — to decide. You need to understand the ADA service dog laws and implement a clear office policy to educate your staff and protect your practice from a blow to your reputation, a discrimination lawsuit, or a hefty $75,000 – or even $150,000 fine.

Look to the ADA Service Dog Laws When Drafting Your Office Animal Policy 

When you draft your office animal policy, it’s imperative that you specifically understand the protection that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides to individuals who want to bring service animals with them in public places. Most healthcare facilities are regulated by Title II (State and Local Governments) and Title III (Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities) of the ADA, which is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.

Be aware: If your practice is open to the public, you must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go. Other laws you will need to reference are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires service dog handlers to have access to any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance (including Medicaid or Medicare), and your state laws which cannot be more restrictive than the ADA. So, even if the state law says it excludes psychiatric service dogs from protection, those service dogs are still protected under the ADA.

FAQs for Drafting Your Office Animal and Service Dog Policy

As you draft your office service dog policy, you’ll undoubtedly have many questions.  From understanding the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal to how to handle animals in your waiting room, here are solutions to some frequently asked questions to get you started.

Q: Are we legally required to let people bring animals into our practice?

That depends. If it’s a service animal, yes. If it’s an emotional support animal, no, not legally, but tread lightly in banning them completely. Here’s how to identify the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal:

  • Service animal. Specifically, a service animal is almost always dog (but sometimes a miniature horse) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. A service animal is protected under the ADA. Service animals are trained to perform at least one task directly related to the person’s disability, and they are classified as working animals, not pets. Keep in mind, you can’t always see a disability, such as PTSD or depression.
  • Emotional support animal. An emotional support animal can be any animal that provides therapeutic benefits, comfort, or emotional stability to someone suffering a psychological disability that substantially interferes with major life activities. The individual must present a letter from a certified healthcare provider to prove the animal is a legit emotional support animal. An emotional support animal isn’t trained to perform a task or recognize any medical condition. The two federal laws that are applicable for emotional support animals are the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, both of which are inapplicable to most healthcare facilities. State laws can regulate emotional support animals, but many of them do not.

Q: Are emotional support animals protected under the ADA?

No. An emotional support animal does not have the same protection as a service animal under the ADA, which only applies to animals who have been trained to perform a task to benefit an individual with a disability. If you are unsure if the patient’s animal is a service animal or an emotional support animal, you may ask, but here are only two questions you are allowed to ask an individual without violating the ADA. These two very specific questions include:

  • Is the dog a service dog?
  • What work is the dog trained to perform?

That’s it. Make sure your entire staff is aware of these two questions — It only takes one person to ask the wrong question and violate the ADA.

Q: Can we make people with service dogs wait in an alternate waiting room?

No. While it may sound unfair, a person with a service animal must be accommodated even to the detriment of another person with a phobia or animal allergy. Asking the person with the service animal to stay in a different waiting room is classified as discrimination. The one time you may be able to get away with providing an alternate waiting room is in an allergy clinic where you treat patients with a competing disability. But even in an allergy clinic, you should err on the side of accommodating the person with the service animal. If you do provide an alternate waiting room, make sure that waiting room is as nice or nicer than the general waiting area. As another alternative, consider asking patients when you schedule appointments if they will be bringing a service animal, and if so, then schedule those appointments at a certain time of day.

Q: Can we make the service dogs wait in the waiting room while the patient is receiving treatment?

No. Service animals can go anywhere their owner goes unless the animal poses a greater hazard than the owner does in the same place. Your practice can only keep a service animal out of the treatment area if you can prove that the service animal poses a risk that can’t be eliminated. For example, in a hospital environment, a service animal is permitted in most places except operating rooms, coronary care units, hemodialysis units, ICUs, or designated infectious care isolation areas. A general rule of thumb is a service animal should be permitted anywhere, including the cafeteria, with the only exceptions being rooms that require a sterile scrub prior to entry.

ADA Fines — and Other Headaches — for Non-Compliance

The current ADA enforcement environment is fairly aggressive, and the courts often rule on the side of the person claiming discrimination in the lawsuit. What can this cost you?:

  • ADA Civil Penalties range from $75,000 for first violation to $150,000 for the second.
  • You can face lawsuits from patients and even employees who want to bring their own animals to work.
  • Your reputation can be damaged when patients post negative practice reviews on social media.
  • Investigations and lawsuits will sap your time, money, and employee morale.

Tips to Implement an ADA-Compliant Office Service Dog Policy for Your Practice

Because the stakes are high for non-compliance, your practice must have an office animal policy, and everyone who works for you should be familiar with it. Here are some tips to prepare your office animal policy:

  • Put your office animal policy in writing.
  • Align your policy with the applicable laws.
  • Keep your policy brief and in plain language, and relevant to your practice.
  • Know your sterile enviornments where individuals must scrub up.
  • Keep your policy short, in plain language, and relevant to your practices
  • Include FAQs.
  • Consider having an outside legal review of your policy.

Don’t let the stress of having to handle pet problems derail your ability to maintain an inviting office in a way that compassionately accommodates those with disabilities and makes others feel comfortable as well.

Join compliance and ethics consultant Diana Trevley for her one-hour online training session, “Emotional Support Animal Policy Requirements: Protect Your Practice Today,” and find out how to deal with animal allergies, barking dogs, pet messes, and other disasters—including how to legally handle a patient who you think is lying about their need for a service animal.


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