Effective January 1, 2019, Washington’s laws governing service animals changed, and this change impacts businesses throughout our state. Washington’s legislature revised the state’s laws related to service animals in order to address the misrepresentation of pets, emotional support animals, and therapy animals as service animals by people seeking to bring the animal into a public place where the animal would not otherwise be allowed.
The new law does not (and cannot) exempt Washington businesses from compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires places of “public accommodation” that would not otherwise permit animals on the premises to allow service animals. What the law does is update – and narrow – the definition of “service animal” under Washington law, penalize anyone who misrepresents an animal as a service animal, and provide for a limited inquiry into whether or not an animal is a service animal.
Under Washington law, it continues to be unlawful to engage in behavior that would restrict or otherwise distinguish or discriminate against a person with a disability with a trained service animal in a “place of public accommodation.” RCW 49.60.215. The definitions of both “service animal” and “place of public accommodation” have been revised, however. For example, the new definition of animals that qualify as a “service animal” is now limited to dogs and miniature horses, and can be found at RCW 49.60.040(24). The definition of “place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement” has also been updated and can be found at RCW 49.60.040(2).
Perhaps most significantly, the updated law now provides, at RCW 49.60.214, that it is a civil infraction for a person to misrepresent an animal as a service animal. In addition, RCW 49.60.214(2)(b) provides that an enforcement officer or place of public accommodation may make two specific inquiries to determine whether an animal is a service animal. While asking about the nature or extent of a person’s disability is prohibited, under the new law, a business may ask if an animal is required due to a disability and inquire as to the work or task the animal has been trained to perform. Note, however, that the law does not allow a business to require documentation that the service animal has been trained for a particular task, nor may the business require the animal to demonstrate its training.
Businesses need to be mindful of Washington’s laws against discrimination, in addition to any applicable provisions of federal nondiscrimination laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act. These laws are relevant to customer interactions, contractual provisions, and employee matters. Have a question about compliance? Consult with an attorney before you are faced with an enforcement action or dispute.