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South Dakota Supreme Court Reverses Decision Dismissing Disability Retaliation Case

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

People suffering from a range of physical and mental disabilities frequently rely on companion animals, most commonly dogs, to assist them as they go about their day.  Most employers, however, prohibit employees from bringing animals to work, creating a tension between employer and employee based on a misunderstanding about disability.  As part of our series on mental health, this blog covers a case involving a companion animal for someone suffering from depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD).

Joyce Riggs worked for the Bennett County Hospital and Nursing Home (the “Hospital”) from March 2006 until her termination in March 2015.  Between 2006 and 2012, Joyce brought a companion animal to work with her to help manage her depression and PTSD.  When Ethel Martin became CEO in 2012, however, the Hospital adopted a more restrictive policy regarding pets in the workplace.  Joyce informally requested permission to continue bringing her companion animal to work, but the Hospital denied her request.

On January 13, 2015, Joyce formally requested the Hospital permit her to bring her companion dog to work.  To support her request, Joyce submitted a form completed by her psychiatrist, indicating that Joyce suffered from depression and PTSD and that Joyce’s depression had worsened since 2012.  The psychiatrist recommended that the Hospital permit Joyce to bring her dog to work again.

On January 21, 2015, a committee consisting of Ms. Martin, Judy Soderlin (the Hospital’s chief financial officer), and Katie Dillon (Joyce’s supervisor) met to consider Joyce’s request.  In a letter sent to Joyce, the committee indicated that it took into account the duties of Joyce’s position, her current job performance, her two most recent performance evaluations, her attendance record over the past year, any previous complaints or concerns Joyce expressed to her supervisors describing her difficulties, and Joyce’s medical documentation.  Based on its findings, the committee denied Joyce’s request for accommodation.  Essentially, the upper management of the Hospital claimed that Joyce was already doing too good of a job for her to need an accommodation.

Thereafter, Joyce’s relationship with the Hospital’s management became increasingly strained.  Ultimately, Ms. Martin terminated Joyce’s employment for insubordination and failure to follow Hospital policy.  On the same day that Ms. Martin fired Joyce, Ms. Martin found a letter in her mailbox appealing the decision to deny Joyce’s request to bring her companion animal with her to work, and, on March 11, Joyce’s husband hand delivered a letter to the Hospital from Joyce appealing the decision to terminate her employment.

On March 12, 2015, Joyce applied for unemployment benefits.  Ms. Martin provided the Department of Labor (the “DoL”) with documentation on Joyce’s termination and the DoL later denied Joyce’s unemployment benefits.  Joyce appealed the DoL’s decision and lost.

Joyce filed two charges of discrimination with the South Dakota Department of Labor’s Division of Human Rights (the “Human Rights Division”), one alleging that the Hospital illegally refused her request for accommodation, and another alleging the Hospital’s opposition to Joyce’s unemployment claim was retaliation for making the request.  On December 1, the Human Rights Division determined there was not probable cause to believe the allegations in Joyce’s retaliation claim.

Joyce appealed the case up to the South Dakota Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case back to the Human Rights Division for further consideration. The Supreme Court found that the Human Rights Division ignored Joyce’s March 2 and March 11 letters when it dismissed the case; its failure to consider a possible link to between Joyce’s termination and her letter to Ms. Martin rendered its decision incomplete.  Joyce is currently pursuing both her failure to accommodate claim and her retaliation claim.

While the decision uses the word “companion dog” Joyce’s dog may qualify as a “psychiatric service animal” under the ADA.  Presently, “companion dogs” and “emotional support animals” are not covered accommodations under the ADA—unlike a “psychiatric service animal.”  The difference between the two categories is the work or tasks that the animal performs.  Psychiatric service animals, in additional to providing companionship, perform a range of jobs, including alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, or calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack.  Other statutes, however, do include protections for individuals who rely on emotional support animals, from federal laws like the Fair Housing Act to local laws like the New York City Human Rights Law.

Companion animals are not just pets: in addition to providing love and affection, these animals help individuals cope with certain disorders and can improve their owners’ mental and emotional state.  As such, The Harman Firm, LLP, advocates for courts to accept employees’ requests to use companion animals as accommodations for mental conditions.

If you believe your employer has failed to engage in the interactive process to find accommodations that enable you to work with your mental or physical condition, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

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