Executive Summary: On August 30, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, covering New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, issued a precedential opinion in an important case interpreting the Americans With Disabilities Act's (ADA) public accommodations provision and its interaction with persons who rely on psychiatric service animals. In summary, the court: (1) deepened a circuit split by joining the Tenth Circuit in holding that the ADA applies to plasma donor centers; and (2) held that the plasma donor center at issue violated the ADA by imposing a blanket ban on prospective plasma donors who use psychiatric service animals. See Matheis v. CSL Plasma, Inc., (3d Cir. Aug. 30, 2019).
Background: The case was brought by plaintiff George Matheis, Jr. against CSL Plasma, Inc., which owns and operates a plasma donation facility in York, Pennsylvania. Matheis is a retired SWAT team officer who was involved in a deadly shooting incident in 2000 and subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Matheis donated plasma at the CSL facility 90 times in 2016, earning between $250-300 per month for his donations.
In October 2016, Matheis's daughter bought him a dog, Odin, to cope with her enlisting in the Navy and leaving him. Odin was trained as a service dog for Matheis shortly thereafter. During Odin's initial training, Matheis brought him to CSL to introduce him to the facility. CSL essentially told Matheis that he could not donate until a doctor certified that he could safely donate plasma without Odin. Notably, CSL's concern was not related to health concerns for service animals. Instead, CSL concluded that using a service dog for anxiety means that the donor's condition is too severe to undergo safely the donation process.
Subsequently, Matheis filed suit under Title III of the ADA, and CSL moved for summary judgment, advancing two arguments: first, CSL argued that plasma donor centers are not covered entities under the ADA, and second, that its policy judgment on barring all individuals who use psychiatric service animals from donating was reasonable. The district court rejected the "not covered" argument but adopted the second, holding that CSL's policy was reasonable. The Third Circuit affirmed the determination that CSL was covered under the ADA, but reversed the judgment on reasonableness, holding that the blanket service animal ban was unreasonable as a matter of law.
Third Circuit Decision: First, the Third Circuit joined the Tenth Circuit in holding that the ADA applies to plasma donor centers, rejecting a contrary holding from the Fifth Circuit. The ADA applies to public accommodations which include, in relevant part, "other service establishment[s]." 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7)(F). The court concluded that plasma donor centers comfortably fit within the ambit of a service establishment. Centers offer a service to the public, extracting plasma for money, which is then used by the center in its business of supplying a vital product to healthcare providers. The court rejected CSL's argument that because donors like Matheis derive a benefit from donating, donor centers are not service establishments. The court likened donor centers to banks or even recycling centers, noting that the latter compensate consumers in exchange for their waste, and they have been held subject to the ADA.
Second, the court rejected CSL's policy as unreasonable. The only question before the court, as pared down by the parties, was whether Matheis's use of Odin was reasonable. Title III entities are required to "modify policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability." 28 C.F.R. § 36.302. Use of a service animal is reasonable so long as no DOJ-promulgated regulation supersedes the general rule. Precedent dictated that only a small group of regulatory exceptions formed the basis for an entity to deny the use of a service animal that is a necessary accommodation for a disabled person. One exception is a safety policy an entity adopts based on "actual risk and not mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities."
Answering that inquiry, the court held CSL's blanket policy was not a valid safety policy. The policy speculated and generalized widely about individuals who use psychiatric service animals. CSL did not, and indeed could not, make the evidentiary connection that the CSL policy was based on actual risk. The court thus reversed summary judgment against Matheis and remanded for further proceedings.
The Bottom Line: Blanket policies which ban service animals for reasons of public safety must be carefully scrutinized so as to not interfere with disabled persons' rights under the ADA. Before taking such measures, companies should consult with counsel to ensure that they are not making safety assessments based on generalizations or stereotypes, but rather are making rationally grounded safety assessments supported by evidence.
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