Dilemma: Choosing Between Competing Requests for Accommodation

An Ohio federal court has addressed a reasonable accommodation conflict at The Ohio State University.  The facts were as follows:

A sophomore at OSU, Madeline Entine, was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.  She also suffered from debilitating panic attacks. She was recognized as having a disability under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

Entine had a service dog trained to disrupt her panic attacks. She made OSU aware of her disability and OSU accommodated her by allowing her dog to accompany her into areas and campus buildings where animals were normally prohibited.  She was also allowed to live with her dog in a sorority house on campus.  OSU’s ADA coordinator advised that the dog was limited to Entine’s bedroom and the formal living room in the sorority house.

Another resident of the sorority house, Carly Goldman, complained that she was highly allergic to Entine’s dog, stating that it exacerbated her diagnosed Crohn’s disease, as well as her allergies and asthma.

OSU’s ADA coordinator investigated Goldman’s complaint and both Entine and Goldman had to submit information about their medical conditions. An agreement was reached whereby Entine would limit the dog to certain areas of the house and Entine would eat outside the dining area.  Ultimately Goldman objected again as she felt that Entine was not complying with the agreement.

The ADA coordinator determined that both women had disabilities and their accommodation needs were at odds that could not be reconciled. He decided that the person who secured her lease first (Goldman) could stay in the house and the other (Entine) would have to choose to move out of the house or continue to live in the house without an accommodation.

Entine filed suit in federal district court, asserting violations of the ADA. The Court noted that OSU must permit the use of service animals unless they would pose a direct threat or the animal is out of control.  The court found that the ADA coordinator did not perform the correct inquiry under the ADA

The Court also found that Goldman did not actually request an accommodation. She merely objected to the modification of the sorority no animal  policy.  Had she requested an accommodation, OSU should have engaged in the interactive process.

The Court held that service animals should generally be accommodated unless an investigation concludes that the service animal poses a direct threat to another person or is out of control. OSU and its ADA coordinator were restrained from removing Entine or her dog from the sorority house or taking any other adverse action against her if she remains in the house.

TAKE AWAY: Although this case did not pertain to an employment dispute, it does provide guidance with respect to how to deal with conflicting requests for accommodation under the ADA.  Once an employee self-identifies as having a disability that requires an accommodation, the employer must enter into the interactive process with the employee to determine whether an accommodation  acceptable to  both may be made.  In case of competing requests for accommodation, the interactive process will be trickier, but must be performed with each employee. Each employee may request, but not demand, a specific accommodation.  The employer may suggest alternate accommodations that will not result in undue hardship to the employer.

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