Service Dogs Expected to take on Expanded Role in Public Places

Recently, a Southern California school district settled a case brought in the Federal District Court where a minor plaintiff sought to enjoin the school district from denying his service dog access to the classroom.  The minor plaintiff was not visually or otherwise impaired, but diagnosed with a form of autism.  The school district objected to having the dog in the classroom after learning of several persons who had allergies to dogs.  It also appeared as though the plaintiff’s dog was “a comfort animal with a certificate.”

Developments in the law suggest service animals that assist autistic individuals are growing in popularity and school districts throughout the country should be aware of their potential obligation under the law to allow them.   To ignore these trends is to expose a school district to greater risk.

A school district’s defense based on allergies, fear of dogs, or risk of dog bites are not enough to outweigh the perceived benefits for the disabled student.  When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.

The Central District of California addressed this issue in the 2010 case of C.C. v. Cypress School District.  Student C.C. sought to prevent the district from denying him and his service dog access to the school and its programs.  It was argued that C.C.’s service dog prevented the student from running away; comforted the student by providing “deep pressure” upon command by a third-party handler; read the student’s anxiety and nudged him upon command by a third-party handler; and carried the student’s materials for him.

Despite the school district’s argument that the functions the service dog provided were “emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship,” roles specifically excluded for service animals in the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Central District Court issued the preliminary injunction, requiring the school district to allow the service dog to go to school with the student.  The ruling is telling as to how the courts may interpret the definition of “service animal” for students with emotional, developmental, and/or neurologic conditions, especially since effective treatment for autism is not well established, making it difficult to measure anything but the actual behavior of the individual afflicted with it.

Entities that maintain places of public accommodation, including schools, should be vigilant in ensuring all appropriate accommodations for disabled persons are available.

Ryan D. Miller is an attorney in our Riverside, CA office where he focuses his practice on employment and labor law, general liability defense and prevention, education law, and municipal law.  He can be reached at (951) 276-4420 or rmiller@cmda-law.com.

Maurice S. Kane is an attorney in our Riverside, CA office where he focuses his practice on employment and labor law, general liability defense and prevention, education law, personal injury defense litigation, and products liability law.  He can be reached at (951) 276-4420 or mkane@cmda-law.com.