On July 14, 2020, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed Senate Bill (SB) 644, increasing the potential penalties imposed on Missourians and visitors who attempt to pass off their pets as bona fide service dogs. While Missouri law previously made it a crime to impersonate an individual with a disability, now the misrepresentation of a dog as a valid and properly trained service animal is also a crime.
Approximately half of the states have passed similar laws, and many of these laws have been amended to provide greater penalties as the fraudulent use of service animal vests, certificates, and permits has increased. An official identification card certifying that someone has a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or requires a particular accommodation, does not exist. With the relative ease, quickness, and limited expense of purchasing vests and certificates on the internet, it is easy to obtain the supplies that make it appear like a person’s pet is an actual service animal. Most websites that sell these items require no proof that a dog has been trained to perform functions to assist a disabled person—much less trained for obedience or simple commands.
Under Missouri law, a service dog is now defined as “a dog that is being or has been 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.” For purposes of this law, misrepresentation includes, but is not limited to: (1) “[k]nowingly creating documents that falsely represent that a dog is a service dog” (for oneself or others); (2) “[k]nowingly fitting a dog, if the dog is not a service dog, with a harness, collar, vest, or sign” designating the dog as a service dog; or (3) [k]nowingly representing that a dog is a service dog if the dog has not completed training to perform disability-related tasks … for a person with a disability.”
Disability rights groups and advocates often support these laws because the fake service dog industry’s profitable gimmicks and scams have the effect of watering down the importance of the tasks and assistance that properly trained dogs perform for disabled individuals to allow them access to many services and activities that others enjoy without the help of assistive aids, devices, or animals. The most recent scam accomplished in the name of the ADA involves fake face mask exemption cards.
And, remember that it is confusing that employees can request almost any species of animal as a workplace accommodation for a disability, but only dogs and miniature horses are valid service animals in the public accommodation context under federal law. To make it even more confusing, the rules are also potentially different on airplanes and in hotels and apartments.
Three important takeaways arise from this new law:
- If you want to take your dog with you to the grocery store, only do so if Fido is a true service animal or if that store allows “pets” (in other words, don’t sneak your dog in as a service animal by fetching a fake vest or retrieving a fraudulent certificate).
- As a business owner/public accommodation providing services to customers, visitors, guests, patients, etc., understand your rights and obligations regarding service animals (as well as the rights and obligations of your customers) to make it easier to sniff out imposters.
- As an employer, know your rights and obligations when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation that includes bringing a service animal to work, which entails much broader and more complex considerations in the workplace and may include the use of species beyond dogs and miniature horses!