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Bennett v. Hurley Med. Ctr.

No. 23-1162, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 29926
United States Court, Sixth Circuit
November 9, 2023

Keywords: service animal, accommodation, reasonable modification, public entity, hospital, staff member, service dog, direct threat, allergic reaction, intentional discrimination, interactive process, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Summary

Mia Bennett is a student nurse at Hurley Medical Center, University of Michigan-Flint. Bennett was no longer permitted to have her service dog, Pistol, join her while working due to the dog causing allergic reactions in a patient and co-worker. Pistol was trained to assist Bennett with a panic disorder.

The district court ruled in favor of Hurley Medical Center.

Bennett appealed the district court decision to the Sixth Circuit United States Court of Appeals. On appeal, the court found that although the district court was wrong in ruling that Bennett abandoned her claim of intentional discrimination, they were not wrong in granting summary judgment to Hurley Medical Center because Bennett did not show evidence that she was discriminated against because of her disability or that Hurley failed to provide reasonable accommodations. The circuit court upheld the district court ruling.

Facts of the Case

Mia Bennett (“Bennett”) is paired with her service dog, Pistol, due to a panic disorder. Bennett completed a clinical rotation at Hurley Medical Center (Hurley) as part of her nursing student education. Before beginning the rotation, she requested Pistol be permitted to accompany her at work, and Hurley agreed.

On the first day Pistol was at the hospital, a patient and a staff member both reported experiencing allergic reactions. After this, Hurley re-evaluated and cancelled Bennett’s accommodation to always have Pistol with her in the hospital. Hurley offered alternative accommodations of keeping Pistol in a crate on a separate floor of the hospital and allowing Bennett to take necessary breaks to be with him.  

Issues of the Case

  1. Did Hurley intentionally discriminate against Bennett due to her panic disorder under Title II of the ADA?
  2. Did Bennett show that Hurley failed to provide a reasonable accommodation under Title II of the ADA?

Arguments & Analysis

1. Did Hurley intentionally discriminate against Bennett due to her panic disorder under Title II of the ADA?

The district court previously ruled that Bennett had to show she was excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of the program due to her disability and show evidence that Hurley acted with hostility against her.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Bennett did not prove intentional discrimination on the part of Hurley. Bennett did not claim that the hospital acted against her due to her disability, but she did claim that her separation from Pistol denied her the benefits of Pistol’s service which thereby excluded her from the hospital rotation. However, the court ruled that Hurley’s decision was motivated by complaints from a staff member and a patient due to their allergic reactions to Pistol. A Hurley staff member who was involved in the hospital’s decision testified she did not know what specific medical condition Bennett had.

The court decided that the exclusion of Bennett’s service dog was motivated by allergic reactions to Pistol and not by her disability of panic disorder.

2. Did Bennett show that Hurley failed to provide a reasonable accommodation under Title II of the ADA?

In the past, the court has allowed a claim of discrimination under Title II of the ADA for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. This does not mean that an employee will always get the accommodation they want, but the court may agree with a reasonable claim that allows meaningful access to the public entity. To determine what constitutes a reasonable accommodation of a service animal in a healthcare setting, the court looked at U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) regulations describing how service animals should be accommodated by public entities under the ADA.

The court decided under the DOJ regulations that service animals are generally allowed in areas open to the public, including healthcare facilities. However, the regulations also state that they can be kept out if the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. To decide if Pistol was a direct threat, the court judged the nature, duration, and severity of the risk, the likelihood that a potential injury will actually occur, and whether reasonable modifications of policies, practices, or procedures will reduce the risk.

The court decided that Pistol was a direct threat because two people had allergic reactions. The court said that there was a risk of future allergic reactions in staff members and patients and the risk could be severe.

To reduce this risk, Hurley would have to move allergic patients or staff members away from Pistol. The court decided that these steps to reduce the risk were unreasonable.

Rulings

The Sixth Circuit Court ruled that Bennett did not show the hospital stopped Pistol from accompanying her on her rotations because of her panic disorder. Because of this, she failed to show intentional discrimination.

The Court also ruled that Bennett did not prove her failure to accommodate claim because Pistol posed a direct threat, and therefore the district court properly granted summary judgment in Hurley’s favor.

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