ADA, service animals and the right to refuse a guest

Who said a dog is a man’s best friend?

In a recent California case, a plaintiff claimed his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act were violated when he was denied a room at a Hampton Inn because a disabled person with a service dog accompanied him. The relevant rule is this: An inn can legally refuse to grant a room to a would-be guest who arrives with a pet, unless the four-legged friend is a service animal. A service animal is defined as one that performs tasks for a person with a disability to help overcome limitations resulting from the disability.

The hotel in question was a California Hampton Inn. The plaintiff arrived with his brother and a dog. The plaintiff’s sibling claimed he had muscular dystrophy and used Duke, a Great Dane, to help maintain mobility. The canine had a county dog tag identifying his owner but no proof of service dog status.

The plaintiff had not made an advance reservation. While the plaintiff was in the check-in line, the front desk clerk noticed the dog for the first time and that it was not on a leash, was big, and was “just roaming through the lobby, sniffing the inn’s clientele.” When the clerk asked the plaintiff to leash the dog, he became angry and uttered obscenities. The clerk also noted that the brother did not appear to be disabled, was wearing only swim trunks and smelled strongly of alcohol. The clerk informed the plaintiff that the furry friend was welcome only as a service dog and proof was needed of the medical necessity. The dogmatic response: “I don’t have to provide any f---ing proof.”

The clerk denied a room on the ground that the man was drunk and surly. The plaintiff left in a huff, obtained a room in a nearby facility, and sued the franchisor, Hilton Hotels, and the franchisee for violation of the ADA.

This case implicates several rules of law. First, the law is quite clear that franchisors are not generally liable for acts of the franchisee. Therefore the case against Hilton was dismissed. 

Another applicable law: As a general rule a hotel must provide a room to all who seek one. Two exceptions include a person who is drunk and disorderly and a person with a non-service pet. Thus the Hampton Inn clerk was within his rights to refuse a room based on the plaintiff’s intoxicated and disruptive state.

For purposes of clarifying the ADA rule, if a dog’s status is not readily apparent, the innkeeper can ask the owner if it is a service animal required because of a disability. The hotel cannot, however, demand special papers or ask about the nature of the person’s disability. Further, a service animal can be excluded if its behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. An interesting question is whether sniffing other guests qualifies.