Christopher L. Voltz, email@example.com, (412) 594-5508
C.G. by and through P.G. v. Saucon Valley Sch. Dist., 5:21-CV-03956, 2021 WL 5399920, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 18, 2021). The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania grants student’s request for preliminary injunction upon finding that student was likely to prevail on her claim that her dog was a service animal and that she would suffer irreparable harm if not permitted to attend school with her dog.
In Saucon Valley School District, a minor female (“C.G.”) who was diagnosed with multiple disabilities and had a history of seizures wished to attend school with her dog, George. The dog had been trained to perform several special tasks, including the ability to detect rising cortisol levels, which can be a precursor to seizures. However, the District denied her request to attend school with the dog.
In response, C.G. sued the District, alleging discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The Court determined, inter alia, that C.G. had shown a substantial likelihood of success that George was a service animal and granted C.G.’s motion for a preliminary injunction allowing her to bring her dog to school.
Both the RA and the ADA secure the rights of individuals with disabilities to independence and full inclusion in American society. For those with disabilities, the RA assures “meaningful access” to federally funded programs and the ADA provides for “full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations. To fulfill these goals, the RA and the ADA require that reasonable accommodations or modifications be made by covered actors for individuals with disabilities. In the context of service animals, “it constitutes discrimination under the RA, to the same extent as under the ADA, to refuse to permit disabled individuals to be accompanied by service animals.”
School districts are covered by both the RA and the ADA and, in Saucon Valley School District, it was not disputed that C.G. was a person with disabilities protected under both statutes. Thus, the main question was whether George qualified as a service animal.
Whether an animal qualifies as a service animal is a two-part test. First, the animal must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Second, the tasks performed by the animal “must be directly related to the individual’s disability.” Examples of qualifying tasks include “assisting an individual during a seizure” and “providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities.”In contrast, animals that merely provide emotional support, comfort, or companionship do not qualify as service animals.
If an individual requests to be accompanied by his or her service animal, a public entity may make two inquiries to determine whether [the] animal qualifies as a service animal: 1) is the animal required because of a disability; and 2) what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. Once these two questions have been answered, the investigation must end. The public entity “shall not ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability” and “shall not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.”
The Court rejected the District’s argument that the services performed by George, including cortisol detection and alert, deep pressure therapy (“DPT”) and mitigation of anxiety, were in the nature of emotional support. First, the court noted that these tasks were not something an ordinary pet can do. Specifically, changes in cortisol levels can be a precursor to something dangerous and George’s ability to detect these changes and alert C.G. to them could be lifesaving. Similarly, with respect to DPT, George’s ability to “read” C.G. and strategically place his body on hers to improve her condition was not something a normal dog can do. Finally, while mitigating anxiety was a closer call, the Court found that because some of C.G.’s disabilities were psychiatric in nature, George’s training allowed him to mitigate them. Importantly, the Court noted that psychiatric ailments, as opposed to physical ailments, are still real ailments.
Accordingly, the Court determined that C.G. showed a substantial likelihood of success on the merits because there was a substantial likelihood that George qualifies as a service animal because he has been trained to perform tasks that relate to one or more of C.G.’s disabilities.
The Court also found that C.G. would suffer irreparable harm if she was denied in-person attendance with George because attending school without George put her health at risk and because other alternatives (like virtual education) deny her the chance of making “meaningful progress” in her education. The Court strongly rejected the District’s argument that no injunction should be issued because it offered, and C.G. declined, to provide a completely virtual education. The court stated that if it accepted this argument, then no person suffering from a disability could ever prove irreparable harm by being turned away from a public entity if the entity offered access without the service animal or a virtual comparison.
Accordingly, the Court granted the preliminary injunction and ordered the District to allow C.G. to attend school with her dog, George.
As noted above, a school district’s ability to require information about a service animal is limited. Specifically, while it can ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform if the answer is not readily apparent, it cannot require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.
In addition, a school district’s ability to exclude a service animal is limited. Generally speaking, the RA and ADA do not require school district’s to “fundamentally alter” its services. However, the Department of Justice has opined that the presence of a service animal will not result in a fundamental alteration in most settings.
The laws also provide that if a particular service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or if it is not housebroken, that animal may be excluded. Again though, this rule has limited applicability in the school context. In fact, the Department of Justice has advised that in this situation, the school may need to provide some assistance to enable a particular student to handle his or her service animal.
Accordingly, when faced with decisions regarding the admission or exclusion of service animals, school districts should work with their solicitors to ensure that their decision complies with applicable disability laws.
For more information, contact Chris Voltz at firstname.lastname@example.org, (412) 594-5580.