A “comfort” or “emotional support” animal, is one (typically a dog or cat) that provides a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. In most instances, the owner has psychiatric disabilities or other mental impairments. It is different than a “service dog,” which is individually trained to the requirements of a person and may be trained to perform minimal protection or tasks such as pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, and/or alerting or assisting a person with epilepsy or another seizure disorder. A comfort animal is also distinct from A “guide dog,” which is used to assist deaf or hard of hearing people, or people with visual impairments.
Unfortunately, even though comfort animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan for individuals suffering from mental health issues, they are not considered service or guide animals under the federal ADA, and thus are not federally protected.
In New Jersey, though the Law Against Discrimination’s (“LAD”) the definition of “disability” is broad and been found to allow for comfort animals in certain situations. But an owner must prove the impairment and/or that a doctor has prescribed an emotional animal, so that he or she can seek reasonable accommodations from their landlords. These accommodations may include granting an exception to a policy that bans pets or imposes weight or size restrictions on animals.
But a housing provider may still impose reasonable conditions on approvals for comfort animals, such as requiring that they not be permitted to roam the premises unsupervised, or that the occupant or another responsible person clean up after the animal. On the other hand, other than requiring payment for any specific damage done to the premises, it is unlawful to charge a person with a disability an extra fee to keep a comfort animal.
Even though there have not been any significant cases in New Jersey on comfort animals in the workplace, the same framework used in housing situations could be used by an employer to prevent liability if an employee asks to bring a pet to work. The owner, manager or supervisor should ask what limitations or problems the employee faces at work because of mental health issues and discuss whether a reasonable accommodation can be created for the employee to have a comfort animal on the job, without it causing an undue hardship on the employer. There will be some judge sometime in the foreseeable future who will order it. Omar Bareentto is a 2016 Rutgers School of Law graduate and a former contributor to the Rutgers Business Law Review. He collaborated with me on this blog.