Contributed by Eleanor Vaida Gerhards

This week a Florida restaurant made the wrong kind of news when a couple with service dogs was asked by the manager to leave the premises.

This isn’t the first time that a business has gotten bad press for refusing service to persons with animals.

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But what do you do in age where homeowners sue to keep service miniature horses in their homes in violation of city ordinances and passengers cart snakes onto buses and planes using the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as a shield?

Add in the new trend of emotional support pets, it can be hard for a business to know what it can legally prohibit. How does a business know when a customer has a genuine reason for being accompanied by an animal or is trying to circumvent a legitimate “NO PETS” policy?

Under the ADA a business is permitted only to ask the following questions of a customer or patron with a service animal:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What task or service has the animal been trained to do?

This makes it hard for businesses to ferret out who is the “real deal.” People can, and often do, lie. Unfortunately, a business can’t try to verify the veracity of a customer’s statement.

A business may NOT insist on any type of “proof” such as a state certification before permitting a service animal. A business (such as a hotel) cannot charge a maintenance or cleaning fee for customers with service animals. The most important to thing to remember is a service animal is NOT a pet or treated as one under the law.

There are certain exceptions such as when an animal’s behavior poses a risk to other patrons (for example, vicious snarling) or if accommodating the service animal will result in a “fundamental alteration of the business” (for example, loud barking during a movie).

Because any legal violation – even unintentional – has the risk of going viral,  every business owner should make it a point to:

  1. ensure that management knows how to obey and comply with these laws on a practical everyday level;
  2. work with management to ensure that all employees do not inadvertently violate the law; and
  3. keep updated on changes in the law.
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In particular, the ADA was revised in 2011 to recognize only dogs as service animals. This is not the case, however, under other laws such as the Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act or certain state or local laws. It is important to reach out to your legal counsel with compliance questions.

It is becoming more common to see these types of issues arise. In fact, a colleague practicing in animal law recently told me of a member of the audience in a seminar she spoke at who had a service spider!

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Smart businesses must have plans in place so as to be prepared to deal with these issues.