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Optical denies woman's request for service dog at work, fires her

A recent lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes a shocking case of disability discrimination of interest even though it didn’t take place in California. An optician employed by Direct Optical, Inc., a two-store eyeglasses retailer in Michigan, was denied a very basic and reasonable request for accommodation for her disability -- to be allowed to bring her service dog to work. Worse, the employer fired her in retaliation for even making the request.

The controversy entails what types of disabilities justify a service dog. While many people are familiar with service dogs for people limited vision or mobility, this woman’s service dog was for assistance with mental illnesses -- clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, mental illness continues to carry a stigma in our society, and this employer apparently thought mental illnesses aren’t “real” enough to require a service dog.

The EEOC disagrees. Doctors can and do recommend service animals for patients with certain mental illnesses. This medical decision is best left to a medical professional, not a second-guessing employer.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for the disabilities of otherwise qualified employees. Moreover, whether employers find such requests reasonable or not, it is illegal to retaliate against employees for making them. According to the EEOC, Direct Optical tried claiming that the optician was fired for minor performance issues -- but having her service dog would have resolved those very issues.

The EEOC generally attempts to reach settlements through its conciliation process before filing discrimination lawsuits. Even when the agency made clear that employers must accommodate reasonable requests for qualified service dogs regardless of disability type, however, the Direct Optical did not back down.

Eliminating practices that keep people with disabilities from working is one of the EEOC’s top priorities in its current Strategic Enforcement Plan, so the agency’s lawsuit is in part seeking court injunction to prevent further disability discrimination by Direct Optical. It is also seeking compensation for the woman’s lost wages and other losses -- plus punitive damages meant to punish the optical.

“The EEOC's investigation showed that this employer not only denied [the optician’s] request for an accommodation, but then fired her - only making a bad situation worse,” said a trial attorney for the agency’s Detroit field office. “The EEOC will stand up for the rights of such discrimination victims."

Source: EEOC press release, "Optical Store Denied Employee's Request to Bring Her Service Dog to Work, Then Fired Her in Retaliation, Federal Agency Charged," Dec. 4, 2013

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