United States South District Florida Court
843 F. Supp. 2d 1263
November 8, 2011, reconsideration denied February 7, 2012
Keywords: employment, legal concepts, retaliation, state & local government
Facts of the Case
Kyra Alejandro attended classes at Palm Beach State College (“PBSC”) from August 2007 to December 2010. In Fall 2009, the Disability Services Coordinator at PBSC referred her for a psychological evaluation to determine whether she required any special education or learning support services. As a result of the evaluation, Alejandro was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a learning disorder.Following her diagnosis, Alejandro began training her dog, an eight-pound Pomeranian named Ambrosius, as a psychiatric service animal. She trained the dog to establish eye contact, nip her fingers, or snort when he perceived an imminent panic attack. She used the dog at school from Fall 2009 until January 2011 when PBSC officials began to investigate into the nature and severity of her disabilities for which she relied on her service animal. Dissatisfied with the documentation provided by Alejandro, the PBSC officials refused to allow her to bring her dog to class.
When Alejandro continued to bring her dog to class, she was escorted off campus by security and subjected to disciplinary hearings. She claimed that the disciplinary hearings and threat of suspension caused her debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. PBSC officials eventually lifted the ban in May 2011. However, Alejandro claimed that on three separate occasions she was confronted about the presence of her dog. She also claimed that the prohibition caused her to miss a significant number of classes during the Spring 2011 semester, which resulted in her receiving an ‘F’ in a Business class.
PBSC officials sent Alejandro a letter in June 2011 informing her that she had not demonstrated her need for a service dog. Alejandro then filed suit against PBSC under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act). In her suit she claimed that PBSC’s decision prohibited her from having a meaningful opportunity to complete her class assignments and fully participate in her education. While the lawsuit was pending, Alejandro moved for a temporary injunction to allow her to access the campus with her dog for the duration of the trial.
Issue of the Case
- Was it likely that the state college’s refusal to allow a student to bring her psychiatric service dog to campus constituted disability discrimination under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?
Arguments & Analysis
Here, the Court was not deciding the final outcome of the case, only whether Alejandro could bring her dog to campus while the trial was pending. The Court used a four part test to determine whether to grant Alejandro a temporary injunction to regain access to campus with her dog. A temporary injunction is a temporary court order to either do something or stop doing something. A court typically grants a temporary injunction only when the party asking for the injunction will be injured if the injunction is not granted. (See definition of ‘injunction’). To pass the test Alejandro would have to show: (1) that it was likely she would win at trial; (2) that she would suffer harm if the court denied her request; (3) that the potential harm to her if the court denied her request outweighed the harm PBSC would incur if the court granted her request; and (4) that allowing her to bring her dog to campus was in the public interest.
1. Whether Alejandro was likely to win at trial?
PBSC argued that Alejandro was not likely to prevail on her ADA and Section 504 claims at trial because she had not demonstrated that her condition entitled her to a service animal. PBSC claimed it made several legal inquiries into whether Alejandro needed a service dog and that she failed to provide any evidence that her condition entitles her to a service dog.
Alejandro’s counter-argument relied on the Department of Justice’s regulations implementing Title II of the ADA. Both Title II of the ADA and Section 504 prohibit state colleges and other state or local actors from discriminating against an individual with a disability, including excluding them from participation in the program or activity. As a Florida state college, PBSC qualified as a covered entity under both statutes. Generally, a public entity shall modify its policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability. A Service Animal is defined as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. A public entity may ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform, but it cannot require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.
The court held that Alejandro was an individual with a disability under the ADA, and that her dog qualifies as a service animal. The court was swayed by the psychologist’s statement that Alejandro’s service dog “makes a clinical difference for Ms. Alejandro, and has proved to be a crucial accommodation, enabling her, for the most part, to study and learn without experiencing debilitating anxiety.” Because the dog qualified as a service dog under the law, it was likely that PBSC’s refusal to allow access to campus was a violation of the ADA and Section 504.
2. Whether Alejandro would suffer harm if the court denied her request to access campus with her dog?
PBSC claimed that Alejandro would not suffer irreparable injury if the court denied her request for injunctive relief because she was able to attended classes without her dog in the past. The court rejected this argument, holding that Alejandro’s past behavior is not a determining factor to the current case. Furthermore, the court stated that class attendance is an important aspect of obtaining a degree and Alejandro proved that she was unable to attend class without her dog.
3. Whether the potential harm to Alejandro if the court denies her request outweighs the potential harm to PBSC if the court grants her request?
PBSC argued that it would incur a hardship if the court granted the injunction because it would have to provide instruction to faculty and staff that Alejandro’s dog was a service animal in order to prevent disruptions in the classroom. The court disagreed, holding that even if students pet and hold her dog and this disrupts the learning environment, this disruption does not outweigh the harm Alejandro would face if she was again denied access to campus.
4. Whether allowing Alejandro on campus would be in the public interest.
The court held that it is in the public interest to enforce Alejandro’s right to take her service dog with her to PBSC so that she may “function in her classes and complete her studies.”
The court ruled that for the duration of the trial, Alejandro could bring her dog to all areas of campus, including the library, writing lab, cafeteria, and classrooms.
Policy & Practice
Following the Court’s order that PBSC must allow Alejandro to access the campus with her dog during the lawsuit, the two parties came to a settlement agreement. Under the agreement, PBSC officials agreed to pay Alejandro $20,000 and her attorneys $79,900. PBSC also agreed to train administrators on disability discrimination laws and the benefits of service animals to individuals with disabilities. Alejandro claimed the money was not important, but insisted that the training aspect be included in the settlement.
The DOJ Title II regulations provide exceptions for service animals. A public entity may ask an individual with a disability to remove a service animal from the premises if (1) the animal is out of control and the animal’s handler does not take effective action to control it; or (2) the animal is not housebroken. Even if one of these exceptions apply, the public entity must give the individual with a disability the opportunity to participate in the service, program, or activity without having the service dog on the premises.
PBSC inquired into what tasks Alejandro had trained her dog to perform, a practice that is generally allowed under the ADA. However, a public entity may not make this type of inquiry when it is readily apparent that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Examples given in the DOJ regulations are (1) when the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or low vision; (2) pulling a person’s wheelchair; or (3) providing assistance with stability or balance to an individual with an observable mobility disability.
- Opinion: Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College [PDF]
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.