Readers will recall that we recently corralled the law on “Assistive Animals” in the workplace, here. Now, in part two of our mini-series, we pony up an explanation of the rules governing the use of service animals by customers and patrons (as opposed to employees) in places of public accommodation, e.g., grocery or other stores, hotels, and movie theaters (as opposed to the workplace). While there are a few similarities, the California law covering service animals in places of public accommodation differ in significant ways from that governing such animals in the workplace. Reconciling these differences can be like herding cats, causing confusion for customers, employees, and employers that operate places of public accommodation. Please read on to ensure that when confronting these issues you will not be barking up the wrong tree.
What Is a “Service Animal,” Anyhow? While the workplace use of assistive animals is analyzed under the California Fair Employment & Housing Act and Title I of the federal ADA, the use of service animals by disabled individuals in places of public accommodation is governed by the California Unruh Act and Title III of the ADA. While some states define “service animals” more broadly, California (remarkably) adopts the more restrictive federal guidelines set forth in Title III. A “service animal” under Title III and California law is limited to any dog or miniature horse (yes, miniature horse) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for individuals with disabilities. Other species of animals—whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained—are not “service animals,” and are thus not permitted in places of public accommodation in California. So there is no special protection for the use of cats, rabbits, turtles, monkeys, llamas, or other animals sometimes said to provide service. See Patricia Marx, Pets Allowed, How to Take Your Pet Everywhere, THE NEW YORKER, (Oct. 20, 2014), http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/pets-allowed.
As in the employment context, pets in the public accommodation context do not qualify as “service animals” unless they meet the criteria above. Moreover, while an assistive animal may be a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee in the workplace, assistive animals need not be permitted in places of public accommodation if their sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, or crime deterrence (even if they are dogs or miniature horses). So when a customer claims some entitlement to bring a “therapy ferret” or “comfort Chihuahua” into your place of public accommodation, you know that is horse-feathers.