Animals in the Workplace: How to Tame the EPL Risks

A man walks into a bar with a pig (or an alligator, a horse, or another animal). This sounds like the beginning of a joke, but for a growing number of service businesses and employers, it is no laughing matter. Such incidents are creating employment practices liability exposures and have the potential to generate class-action lawsuits.


Guest Contributor - Kunal Shah of Counsel Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP

The appearance of service animals and emotional support, or comfort animals (ESAs) raises a challenging dilemma: must a business accommodate the animal and its handler, and if it refuses, is the business risking a lawsuit?

Lack of clarity in federal, state and local regulations on what constitutes an emotional support animal adds to the confusion. Contributing to the dilemma is a large number of ESAs in public places and on board airlines. Incidents involving untrained or aggressive animals, and handlers suing after they were asked to leave, have escalated into problems that require risk management. Retail insurance agents can help inform their insureds about these exposures, and how to mitigate them while complying with applicable laws (source).


Federal, state and local laws differ on whether a business must admit ESAs, and some do not define such animals. Other laws, however, offer detailed guidance. These include Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act. For example, the ADA distinguishes between service animals and emotional support animals. Under the ADA, a service animal is “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” Revised regulations also now consider miniature horses trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities to qualify as service animals (source 1,2).

In contrast, the ADA does not consider “emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals” to qualify as service animals because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task. Many owners of ESAs cite the animal’s presence as providing comfort for anxiety and other mental challenges. But the ADA also draws a line between psychiatric service animals and ESAs. The ADA requires that the animal be trained to perform a specific action to prevent or mitigate its handler’s anxiety. For example, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder might have a service animal that is trained to enter a space first to look for elements that could trigger the person’s PTSD symptoms.

Incidents where ESAs bite or attack others have raised public safety concerns. Even when a comfort animal is not aggressive, its presence can be disruptive. For example, in 2018 Frontier Airlines delayed a flight more than two hours when a passenger insisted on bringing aboard her comfort squirrel. She and her squirrel were removed from the plane, and the woman later sued Frontier. Other cases involving ESAs that mauled passengers also resulted in litigation (source 1, 2).

Public and private organizations can violate the ADA and invite liability if they improperly treat employees and customers with service animals. In general, all state and local governments, businesses and non-profit organizations that serve the public must allow service animals to accompany handlers with disabilities. Organizations cannot simply refuse service animals because of no-pet policies. A handler also has responsibilities, including keeping control of the service animal and caring for and feeding it. But most state and local laws are much less clear when it comes to emotional support animals.

Many owners of emotional support animals have purchased certifications from online registries, in an effort to demonstrate that their emotional support animal is not simply a pet. Businesses are often skeptical of the validity of such certifications, and worry that pet owners are merely trying to skirt restrictions on bringing their animals wherever they go.

Airlines in particular have struggled with steep increases in the number of passengers traveling with ESAs. Federal regulations for airlines generally have not defined emotional support animals and until recently largely required airlines to admit them on board.

In 2018, U.S. airlines carried more than 1 million passengers with emotional support animals, according to Airlines for America. A coalition of airlines and disability advocates asked the Department of Transportation to update its guidance on flying with such animals. The DOT responded with guidance allowing airlines to restrict emotional support animals that are too large, too heavy or younger than 4 months to safely travel in the cabin. In January 2020, the DOT proposed amendments to the Air Carrier Access Act that, among other things, would define a service animal as a dog specially trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, and would no longer consider emotional support animals to be service animals (source 1,2).

Emotional Support Animals Inflight. In 2018 a woman was escorted off her Frontier Airlines flight after bringing her emotional support squirrel on board. A passenger was barred from boarding a United Airlines plane with her emotional support peacock in 2018 In 2015, a traveler made it onto a flight with a live ESA turkey A woman was escorted off a US Airways flight in 2014 when her pig defecated and squealed before the plane took off


Comfort animals supporting individuals with mental health disabilities present a murky area of potential liability exposure, according to Kunal Shah, attorney at law at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP in Dallas. He focuses his practice on labor and employment litigation and advises employers on claim prevention.

“Mental disabilities, such as anxiety and depression, are challenging for businesses because they are not as easily observed as physical disabilities,” Shah said. “It can be obvious when a blind or hearing-impaired person is using an extremely well-trained dog for assistance. But is a comfort animal a service animal? Case law is still evolving, but the issue hinges on whether the animal performs day-to-day tasks related to the disability. Businesses cannot doubt the veracity of an individual’s disability, but they might have an argument over whether the use of a service animal as an accommodation actually allows the individual to carry out his or her essential tasks.”

“Employers have every right to ask for documentation from an employee. But that must be approached objectively, on a case-by-case basis. Businesses are not entitled to documentation related to an individual’s disability, nor can they ask questions about the animal’s certifications or qualifications. Businesses can ask whether the animal is a service animal, about the type of assistance the animal provides, and what it is trained to do for the individual. Businesses should be mindful of not doubting a person’s disability, whether that person is an employee, job applicant or customer,” he cautioned.


Businesses face several pitfalls in responding to employee or customer requests to bring animals onto their premises. Most businesses already comply with Title III of the ADA, which requires places of public accommodation to provide accessibility to people with disabilities, such as ramps, elevators and lifts, and to assist customers using mobility devices, Shah said. Businesses might, however, overlook the fact that Title III applies not only to people with observable disabilities but also those with mental disabilities, he noted (source).

Violations of Title III can invite lawsuits that are easily packaged as class-action litigation, which can be financially ruinous for small and midsize businesses, Shah explained. Defending a class action can quickly exhaust insurance limits, making risk mitigation critical.

Under the ADA, emotional support or comfort animals do not meet the definition of service animals. But some state and local laws do not draw that distinction. Under the ADA, unless a dog poses a threat to safety or health, the animal is legally allowed to enter public spaces, Shah said.

Businesses wishing to prohibit emotional support animals could post signs indicating a policy of allowing service animals to accompany their handlers. To avoid violating the ADA, businesses should train their staffs that they may ask only two questions if they are unsure whether a dog is a service animal:

  • Is the dog required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

The ADA prohibits businesses from requiring medical documentation as a condition of entering public spaces.

In employment situations, “offices may not be public spaces, but the ADA still applies to the workplace for the purpose of making reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities,” Shah added. He recommends that employers be mindful of their requirement to engage in the interactive process to identify appropriate reasonable accommodations:

  • Do not minimize or ask for proof of the stated disability.
  • Treat the handler’s request like any other request for accommodation.
  • Consult with the individual to ascertain the job-related limitations imposed by the disability.
  • Assess the request and explore possible accommodations.

Businesses must determine whether they can reasonably accommodate the request and, if they can, do so, Shah noted. Laws such as the ADA generally do not require accommodating requests that pose an undue hardship on a business. Undue hardships are more likely for smaller organizations than for larger ones. Taking these steps not only can preserve the rights of the individual with disability, but also provide the foundation for a defense of discrimination claims, Shah added.


Employment practices liability insurance covers acts of discrimination against or harassment of individuals, including third-party discrimination claims. The value of EPLI to businesses of all sizes cannot be overstated. As a duty-to-defend product, EPLI policies provide defense cost coverage. The expenses of mounting a defense, even when a lawsuit is without merit, can add up quickly.

Encounters with service animals and emotional support animals are likely to increase. As a result, organizations and their retail agents should invest time in understanding and mitigating their liability exposure.


Individuals with disabilities who are accompanied by service animals have certain rights, whether as employees or customers in public spaces. Even though laws differ on the requirements for emotional support animals, businesses need to proceed with caution, to avoid discrimination lawsuits. Having adequate EPL insurance protection is strongly recommended. To ensure appropriate coverage and explore the impact of emerging risks, retail agents and their insureds should work with a wholesale specialist.

Contact your CRC Group producer for more information.


  • Mark Smith is Senior Vice President in CRC’s Seattle office and a member of the ExecPro Practice Group.


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