Psych Ward May Have to Let Patients Bring Dogs

     (CN) - A hospital cannot bar the service dog belonging to its 70-year-old psych patient without showing the dog failed an individualized assessment, a federal judge ruled.
     Abigayil Tamara, 70, says she suffers from numerous physical disabilities that require the use of a service dog to help her with balance, picking up and retrieving items, pushing elevator and handicapped buttons, and taking off her jacket.
     Inglis, the highly trained dog she acquired in June 2010, went through substantial training with Tamara, who relies on the animal for mobility and independence, according to the complaint.
     Tamara also suffers from bipolar disorder and has been on psychiatric drugs since 1983, according to her complaint.
     She was admitted to El Camino Hospital in December 2011 for pain caused by a new drug prescribed by her psychiatrist, but the hospital refused to allow the dog to accompany her into the psych ward, citing fear of infection, disruption of the ward's routine and a previous incident involving a dog bite.
     Tamara was given a walker instead, but she said the alternative did not work and forced her to request a portable toilet so she would not "have to go anywhere."
     Though Tamara was eventually transferred out of the psych ward, El Camino allegedly never allowed Inglis back.
     The California hospital's policy now forbids service animals from several restricted access areas. Tamara is currently receiving outpatient psychiatric treatment but says her condition requires her to consider inpatient treatment.
     She sued the hospital for an injunction, claiming that future admission to the hospital will once again result in her being deprived of Inglis. "She alleges she is forced to choose between adequately addressing her health issues and maintaining her civil rights," the court explained.
     El Camino countered that it cannot allow service animals into a sensitive psychiatric ward because doing so would "impose a danger that the hospital could not mitigate without fundamentally altering the nature of the facility," the court's summary continued.
     U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte in San Jose found Friday that the hospital is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if it refuses to allow a person to be accompanied by a service dog.
     Based on the evidence, "the presence of a service animal might affect the ward," but would not "fundamentally alter its nature," the ruling states
     "This is in contrast to sterile environments, which would be impossible to maintain in the presence of a service animal," Whyte added.
     El Camino failed to conduct an individual assessment of Inglis to assess whether Tamara had the ability to care for her dog, or whether the dog is trained not to react to loud noises or "unstable people," according to the ruling.
     "Failure to consider these alternatives was a failure to comply with the ADA's requirements that the public accommodations consider changes in practices or policies that would mitigate any direct threat," Whyte wrote. "Finally, Tamara asserts that El Camino arbitrarily and discriminatorily excluded Inglis because the ward's occupational therapist frequently brings a dog into the ward without incident."
     Whyte granted Tamara a preliminary injunction that precludes El Camino from excluding service animals from its Behavioral Health Units without the benefit of an individual assessment.
     "El Camino must conduct individualized assessments in accordance with the ADA and the Code of Federal Regulations to determine whether a specific service animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others based on reasonable judgment that relies on current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence, to ascertain: the nature, duration and severity of the risk; the probability that the potential injury will actually occur; and whether reasonable modifications of policies, practices or procedures or the provision of auxiliary aids or services will mitigate the risk," Whyte wrote.