Seyfarth Synopsis:  Is it a service animal or an emotional support animal?  Do I have to allow both?  How to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply.

We get a lot of questions about service and emotional support animals.  It’s obvious that there is a lot of confusion out there.  Here is how to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply to both.

Public Accommodations.  Under Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and virtually all state laws, a service animal is an animal that has been trained to perform work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.  Emotional support animals—also called therapy or comfort animals—have not been trained to perform work or tasks.  Instead, they provide a benefit just by being present.  Public accommodations (e.g. restaurants, theatres, stores, health care facilities), are allowed to ask only two questions to determine if an animal is a service animal:  (1) Do you need the animal because of a disability? and (2) What work or tasks has this animal been trained to perform?  The second question is the key:  If the person is unable to identify the work or tasks that the animal has been trained to perform, then the animal is not a service animal.

Under the ADA, only a dog or miniature horse (no, we are not joking) can serve as service animals.  The ADA requires public accommodations to allow service animals to accompany their owners anywhere the owners can go, although the Department of Justice made clear a few years ago that they can be prohibited from swimming pools (in the water) as well as shopping carts.  The ADA provides no protection for emotional support animals in public accommodations.  The Department of Justice has a very helpful FAQ about service animals, and the Washington Post recently published a story that is also useful.

When developing policies, public accommodations must comply with both federal and state law, and some states provide greater protections.  For example, in some states, any type of animal (not limited to dogs and miniature horses) can be a service animal provided it has been trained to perform work or tasks.  Some states may provide protection for emotional support animals as well.  Virtually all states protect service animals in training, which are not addressed by the ADA.  Thus, public accommodations must tailor their policies to account for state requirements, or adopt a policy that will comport with the broadest of all state laws nationwide.

Housing.  The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to residential facilities and provides protection for emotional support animals in addition to service animals.  Thus, property managers, condo associations, co-op boards, and homeowners associations need to keep this in mind when dealing with requests from homeowners and tenants relating to these types of animals.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent guidance on this topic is here.

Airplanes.  The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), not the ADA, governs accommodations for people with disabilities on airplanes.  The Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for enforcing the ACAA rules.  Historically, the rules have required accommodations for emotional support animals, but recent abuses of the rules by passengers seeking to bring all manner of animals such as peacocks and pigs onto planes has caused the DOT to revisit this issue in a pending rulemaking.

Compliance Strategy.  All businesses should have a written policy concerning service and emotional support animals that takes into account federal law, state law, the nature of the business, and the ability of employees to make decisions about whether an animal should be allowed onto the premises.  Having a written policy and training employees on the policy is key to ensuring that they know how to respond when one of these animals shows up on the premises.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Today’s first impression trial verdict finding retailer Winn-Dixie liable under Title III of the ADA for having an inaccessible website suggests that public accommodations should focus on their website accessibility efforts now.

As we reported yesterday, Florida federal District Court Judge Robert Scola last week presided over the first trial in the history of the ADA about an allegedly inaccessible website.  Today, Judge Scola issued a 13-page Verdict and Order finding that grocer Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the ADA by having a website that was not useable by plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil to download coupons, order prescriptions, and find store locations.  Mr. Gil is blind and uses screen reader software to access websites.  Judge Scola ordered injunctive relief, including a draft three-year injunction we have included below, and awarded Mr. Gil his attorneys’ fees and costs.

Although the decision is not binding on any other federal courts or judges – not even in the same judicial district – it is significant for a number of reasons.

First, it is the first decision to hold, after a full trial, that a public accommodation violated Title III of the ADA by having an inaccessible website.  To the extent that businesses are considering whether to settle or litigate these cases, this decision makes the possibility of an adverse verdict much more real.

Second, the draft injunction adopts the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as the accessibility standard that Winn-Dixie must meet in making its website accessible.  WCAG 2.0 AA is a set of guidelines developed by a private group of accessibility experts and has not been adopted as the legal standard for public accommodation websites, although it has been incorporated into many consent decrees, settlement agreements, and is the standard the Department of Justice referenced in the Title II rulemaking process.  The court’s adoption of this set of guidelines further points to WCAG 2.0 AA as the de facto standard for website accessibility.

Third, the court did not consider the $250,000 cost of making the website accessible to be an undue burden.  The court said this cost “pales in comparison to the $2 million Winn-Dixie spent in 2015 to open the website and the $7 million it spent in 2016 to remake the website for the Plenti program.”

Fourth, commenting on an issue causing many businesses concern, the court held Winn-Dixie responsible for the entire website’s lack of accessibility even though parts of the website are operated by third party vendors.  It stated: “[M]any, if not most, of the third party vendors may already be accessible to the disabled and, if not, Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require them to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website.”

The court issued the following draft injunction, and ordered the parties to confer about the deadlines to be inserted in the blanks.

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Pursuant to the terms of this Order and Injunction, Winn-Dixie, Inc.:

  1. Shall not, no later than _____(date) _____, deny individuals with disabilities, including the Plaintiff, the opportunity to participate and benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through its website www.winndixie.com. The website must be accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones.
  2. Shall not, no later than _____(date) _____, provide individuals with disabilities, including the Plaintiff, an unequal opportunity to participate and benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through its website www.winndixie.com. The website must be accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets and smart phones.
  3. No later than _____(date) _____, shall adopt and implement a Web Accessibility Policy which ensures that its website conforms with the WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  4. No later than _____(date) _____, shall require any third party vendors who participate on its website to be fully accessible to the disabled by conforming with WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  5. No later than _____(date) _____, shall make publicly available and directly link from the www.winndixie.com homepage, a statement of WinnDixie’s Accessibility Policy to ensure the persons with disabilities have full and equal enjoyment of its website and shall accompany the public policy statement with an accessible means of submitting accessibility questions and problems.
  6. No later than _____(date) _____, and at least once yearly thereafter, shall provide mandatory web accessibility training to all employees who write or develop programs or code for, or who publish final content to, www.winndixie.com on how to conform all web content and services with WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  7. No later than _____(date) _____, and at least once every three months thereafter, shall conduct automated accessibility tests of its website to identify any instances where the website is no longer in conformance with WCAG 2.0.
  8. If the Plaintiff believes the Injunction has been violated, he shall give notice (including reasonable particulars) to the Defendant of such violation. The Defendant shall have 30 days from the notice to investigate and correct any alleged violations. If the Defendant fails to correct the violation, the Plaintiff may then seek relief from the Court.
  9. In light of what the Court has already found to be the Defendant’s sincere and serious intent to make its website accessible to all, this Injunction will expire in three years.

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In the absence of any regulations setting forth the requirements for a website accessibility program, this injunction, once finalized, will provide a judicially-approved framework for such a program for those public accommodations that want to adopt one.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.