Back in 2012, I posted about a lawsuit filed by a cab driver who claimed he suffers from cynophobia (a fear of dogs), who was fired after he refused to pick up a blind customer with a service dog. The cabbie claimed that his termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because he has a disability — namely a fear of dogs.
Back then, I tried to frame what I thought the issues would be in the case.
Assuming that the plaintiff has a cognizable disability under the ADAAA, the case at first blush seems to put one disability against another. Does a patron’s need for a service dog trump an employee’s fear of dogs?
But it’s more than merely a patron’s “need”. Indeed, the law mandates that guests with service dogs be permitted in all modes of public transportation. Refusal to do so is a misdemeanor.
The U.S. Department of Justice has a recently released guidance on service dogs too. The guidance speaks directly to the issue of fear of dogs.
Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.
So perhaps the case will also look at another ADA issue: Is picking up a passenger with a service dog an “essential” part of the job? Given the legal requirement noted above, it would seem so. And if the cab driver couldn’t do this “essential” function because of his disability with or without a reasonable accommodation, he may not be able to seek protection under the ADA.
The case took several turns but ultimately, the driver’s claim was heard in state court alleging violations of Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws.
Earlier this month (h/t Connecticut Law Tribune), the Superior Court dismissed the complaint. And wouldn’t you know, but the court dismissed it on the exact grounds I highlighted three years ago — namely that picking up blind passengers with service dogs is an essential function of being a cab driver.
Since under state and federal law, taxicab drivers are required to provide transportation to disabled individuals and their service animals, this constitutes an essential function of their job….[F]ederal case law resolves a difficult conundrum: that employers should not be forced to violate state and federal laws and regulations, in this case, discrimination laws relevant to one protected class, in order to avoid discriminating against another protected class.
The case is an important one to keep in mind for employers who have to comply with various state and federal regulations. It reminds employers that the ADA won’t trump those requirements in many instances. This will come in handy, for example, when employers have to address the issue of employees who use medical marijuana and the obligations that they may have to keep a drug-free workplace.