On August 30, 3019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit handed CGA client George Matheis a significant victory in a case where he had been unlawfully barred from a plasma donation facility based on his use of a service dog. Mr. Matheis is represented by CGA attorney Zachary E. Nahass. While the anti-discrimination provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) explicitly apply to businesses such as laundromats, dry-cleaners, banks, barbershops, beauty shops, travel services, shoe repair services, funeral parlors, gas stations, offices of accountants, lawyers and other professionals, pharmacies, insurance offices, health care facilities, hospitals, and “other service establishments,” the Defendant plasma donation facility argued that it was not a service establishment under the ADA, and was therefore not subject to its anti-discrimination rules.
ADA requirements for service establishments
Under the ADA, “service establishments” must allow the use of service animals unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of its business, or if permitting their use would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others. The law requires that safety rules be based on actual risks and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities. The defendant plasma facility maintains a policy that prevents an individual from donating plasma if he or she uses a service dog for PTSD. The facility does not prevent sight or hearing impaired individuals from using service animals but claimed that the use of a dog for psychiatric conditions suggested a condition so severe that the handler was unable to donate plasma safely.
Is the plasma donation facility a service establishment?
The court considered two main issues. First, the issue of whether a plasma donation facility is a service establishment under the ADA. Two other Federal appeals courts had previously considered that issue and arrived at inconsistent conclusions. In this case, the Third Circuit court, which hears cases from Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, agreed with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in finding that plasma donation facilities are service establishments and are required to comply with the ADA anti-discrimination provisions like the vast majority of businesses that provide services to the public. In doing so, the Third Circuit disagreed with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2018 found plasma donations facilities distinguishable from the other service establishments listed covered by the ADA. Given the split in the Federal Circuits, this issue may be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.
Do service animals pose a safety risk?
Having found the plasma facility subject to the ADA, the Third Circuit considered the validity of the facility’s policy of excluding individuals who use service animals for mental health issues. The court found a lack of evidence to support the facility’s suggestion that users of service animals pose a safety risk, and therefore found its policy in violation of the ADA. In one sense, the Third Circuit’s decision is of somewhat limited application – plasma donation facilities are service establishments under the ADA, and must comply with the anti-discrimination provisions that other businesses must follow. However, there is a broader application for the other issue. Any business that seeks to exclude service animals based on a safety concern must have demonstrable evidence that such animals actually pose a safety risk. CGA’s attorneys can assist in developing appropriate policies or reviewing existing policies for legal compliance.