Health facilities and individual healthcare providers who open their offices to the public should remain aware they are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requirements regarding service animals. Failing to adhere to the stringent ADA standards can quickly lead to patient complaints escalating to U.S. Department of Justice intervention, costly settlements, and steep civil penalties.

As a general rule, the ADA requires business that are open to the public to allow individuals with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas members of the public are allowed. The ADA takes care to note that this includes the professional office of health care providers. While service animals are limited to dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled person (i.e., guiding a visually-impaired person, providing stability for a person who has difficulty walking, preventing a child with autism from wandering away, alerting a person with a hearing deficiency to someone approaching), it is often overlooked that the ADA affords miniature horses the same protections as service animal, depending on the ability of a business to accommodate the animal. Animals whose sole function are to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, but businesses should be sure to check any applicable state laws that may provide protections otherwise.

Businesses are limited in their ability to question an individual regarding the animal. The ADA enumerates the only two questions staff may ask: (1) is the service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the service animal been trained to perform? Sticking to these questions, and going no further, is critical in maintaining ADA compliance.

The ADA also limits scenarios in which a business may remove a service animal from its premises: (1) if the service animal is out of control, (2) the service animal is not housebroken, or (3) the service animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. With respect to when a service animal poses a threat to the health and safety of staff, patients, or other individuals, the ADA requires the business perform an individualized assessment of the specific facts at hand. This assessment must address the nature, duration, and severity of the threat, along with the probability that the potential injury will actually occur, and whether the business could make reasonable modifications to its policies, procedures, or practices to mitigate the risk.

What’s more, the ADA isn’t all bark and no bite. While customers and patients can file complaints and seek injunctive relief for alleged violations of the ADA, those complaints can lead to investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and costly fines, even for first time offenders. Courts may assess civil penalties for ADA violations of up to $50,000 for a first violation and $100,000 for subsequent violations.

Businesses and providers should implement or review staff protocol and procedures for assessing exclusions or removals of service animals on an individualized basis, as well as its service animal policy notification to patients and visitors. These audits can help ensure compliance and prevent you from incurring ADA violations and harsh penalties.

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