Great scene, right? A busy restaurant with no masks in sight! But the enjoyment of a meal, or the smooth operation of a business that was battered by Covid, can potentially be ruined if an unruly dog – or owner – comes in. So any owner or manager, especially, should know about the ADA.
What’s the ADA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections in critical areas of society to individuals with disabilities. One protection is that service dogs are allowed to accompany people with disabilities into places of public accommodation. There are, however, important qualifications for this protection to apply.
What’s a “service animal”?
Essential to this protection is understanding what a service animal is, and what it is not. Under the ADA, “service animals” are dogs that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks” for people with mental or physical disabilities. The service dog’s work or tasks must be directly related to the person’s disability. While the ADA does not provide a definitive list of covered tasks, some examples include: assisting blind individuals with navigation; alerting individuals to the presence of allergens; pulling a wheelchair; and assisting an individual during a seizure. What it is not is a pet.
Notably, the ADA explicitly states that “emotional support animals” are not service animals. Emotional support animals offer companionship and therapeutic benefits to individuals with mental health or psychiatric disabilities. They are not individually trained to do work or perform tasks. Due to this, businesses are not required to allow emotional support animals in their places of public accommodation.
What’s a “place of public accommodation”?
The ADA broadly provides twelve categories of “public accommodation.” These categories include, but are not limited to, restaurants, bars, hotels, entertainment venues, retail stores, banks, museums, and gyms. In general, places that serve the public tend to qualify as public accommodations.
What do places of public accommodation need to know?
The ADA requires that places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, allow service dogs to accompany people with disabilities. For example, when an individual arrives to a restaurant with a dog, the staff may only ask the patron two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal; and (2) what work or task is the dog trained to perform. The staff may not inquire beyond these questions into the person’s disability. The staff also may not require the individual to present their medical documentation or proof of the dog’s training. So staff training is absolutely necessary.
Once the dog and its handler (customer) are admitted to the premises, it is the handler’s responsibility to control the service dog. The ADA provides that this generally requires the dog to be harnessed or leashed. If the service dog is not housebroken or if it begins acting out and the handler fails to control it, then the restaurant staff may ask the individual to remove the animal from the premises. If this happens, however, the staff must still allow the person with the disability to purchase food from or dine-in at the restaurant without the dog. Handling these situations is part of staff training.
It is important that restaurants and other places of public accommodation train their employees on the limited questions that may be asked of an individual seeking to bring a dog onto the premises. Again, employees may only ask:
(1) Is the dog a service animal?
(2) What work or task is the dog trained to perform?
If you’re a business owner or manager and need advice, call Mike Farhi at 201-488-7211 x. 215.
Claire Midili is a second-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law, where she is an Associate Editor for the Law Review.