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Service dogs have long worked to help facilitate the independence of the blind, but in recent years man’s best friend has been conscripted to assist people suffering from a much wider range of disabilities. As pooches proliferate, public accommodations are wrestling with questions about whether service can be denied to the owners of these canine caregivers.
The Third Circuit case of Matheis v. CSL Plasma, Inc. examined whether a blood bank, in the name of safety, could bar a person who uses a psychiatric service dog from giving blood. Matheis, a retired police officer, was diagnosed with post-traumatic distress and had a service dog named Odin that helped him cope with anxiety. He had sold blood to CSL Plasma almost 100 times in the course of a year, supplementing his income with the proceeds.
When CSL learned about Odin they told he not only couldn’t bring the dog along with him, but also barred him from giving blood at all. They said they had a blanket policy against taking blood from people who had service animals for anxiety and said that until he provided a doctor’s note saying he didn’t need Odin he wouldn’t be allowed to give blood.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents public accommodations from discriminating against a person on account of their disability. A threshold issue for the court was the question of whether a business that buys and sells blood is a public accommodation. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court determination that the plasma donation center was indeed a service establishment under the ADA. It offers a service to the public, extracting blood for money, with the plasma then used to supply a vital product to healthcare providers.
Both the center and members of the public derived economic value from the business, and the public’s use of a commercial purpose didn’t put it outside of the ADA’s scope. Nor did their community-benefitting aspect eliminate the benefits sought by their donors. CSL paid hundreds of dollars for “donations.”
The Court of Appeals parted ways, however, with the district court determination that CSL hadn’t violated the ADA with its policy. CSL’s business involves blood and needles, so the district court credited their position that people with serious anxiety conditions could be turned away because they might pose a direct threat to staff and other donors in the event of a freak out.
The problem with this defense was that the direct threat exception to the ADA prohibitions on discrimination require an individualized assessment. Matheis had given blood many times without incident. The Court of Appeals stated that safety policies needed to be based on actual risks, not on mere speculation, stereotype, or generalizations about people with disabilities.
The case has been returned to the lower court for further proceedings. Matheis, who had offered to leave Odin in the car during future visits, may not ultimately need to do so if he is successful in his suit. The court pointed out that Title III of the ADA requires companies to accommodate those with service animals.
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