And The (Miniature) Horse You Rode In On…?

For years restaurants, retailers, hotels, and other businesses have understood that disabled patrons may bring “service animals” in their stores. For most people, this means service dogs such as “seeing eye dogs” or dogs used to assist people with various mobility constraints. It’s a safe bet that most business owners and managers would be surprised to see a miniature horse showing up in their stores or restaurants. Well, surprise! Recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or “ADA,” now list miniature horses as service animals, along with dogs, that must generally be permitted into stores, restaurants, and other businesses that offer goods and services to the public.

The current ADA regulations actually serve to narrow the list of service animals (originally the term was not clearly defined). Although initial drafts of the new regulations referred only to service dogs, the Department of Justice later expanded the definition to include “service horses” (defined as miniature horses) as approved companion animals. The ADA’s guidelines state that the DOJ was persuaded to make this change in order to provide an option for disabled individuals who are allergic to dogs, or for people who have religious objections to using dogs as service animals. The regulations also cite to the longer life span for horses as opposed to dogs, as well as their greater physical strength as reasons for their inclusion.

Businesses and business advocacy groups, such as the National Restaurant Association, have expressed reservations about allowing access to “service horses.” Concerns range from the size of the animals (even miniature horses are larger than most service dogs) and sanitation issues. Although the ADA’s regulations provide that “service horses” may be excluded based on several factors including “legitimate safety requirements,” the regulations do not create any bright line rules. It remains to be seen how courts confronted with the inevitable ADA lawsuits over miniature horse access will balance other competing obligations, such as restaurant sanitation rules, with the ADA’s access requirements.

Business owners that say nay to “service horses” (that pun had to be worked in here somewhere), however, are setting themselves up for lawsuits and other legal headaches. In fact, some retailers have already learned thislesson the hard way. In March 2012, a California man sued video game store GameStop and Marshall’s Department Store claiming that these stores refused to allow him access with his 2 1/2 foot, 115 pound miniature horse named “Princess.” The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the stores, monetary damages, and attorney’s fees.

Although it is uncertain how widely used “services horses” will be, it is important for business owners to ensure that their employees are aware of this and other ADA requirements. Often, ensuring that employees working in stores have adequate training on ADA issues and know who to call when unexpected situations arise can help reduce the possibility of lawsuits, or at the very least help reduce a business’s legal exposure when they do arise.

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