Monday, December 2, 2013

Law Student Training Service Dogs Can Sue Law School for Refusing to Admit Dogs to Classes

Nicole Lara Shumate enrolled in Drake University Law School in Des Moines in 2006 and graduated three years later.  Shumate is a service and therapy dog trainer and founded a non-profit organization called Paws and Effect the same year she started law school.  It is not clear when she first tried to bring dogs in training to classes, but her complaint stated that the law school dean notified her in September 2009 that “access to law school facilities with a service dog in training would not be tolerated per the university policy.” 

Shumate brought suit in 2011, alleging that she had been denied access to classes “because she was assisted by a service dog in training.”  She also said that a professor had denied her admittance to a cultural event being held at a local church because she was accompanied by a service dog in training.  Finally, she argued that the law school directed hostility toward her and created a “poisonous learning environment.”  The trial court determined that Shumate came within the coverage of the Iowa disability statute, but held that the statute did not grant her a private right of action.  Therefore, that court granted the university’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  Shumate appealed. 

Iowa Disability Statute Regarding Service Dogs

Iowa Code 216C.11(2) states that a "person with a disability or person training an assistive animal has the right to be accompanied by a service dog or an assistive animal, under control," in places of public accommodation and transportation.The trial court determined that Shumate's training activities were covered by this statute. Drake University disagreed, referring to the definition of a service dog that applied in 2009, under which such a dog had to be “specially trained at a recognized training facility.”  Drake contended that the statute applicable at the time of Shumate’s attendance of law school did not intend “any and every service-dog trainer to be a member of the class of persons protected" by the statute. Presumably, Shumate’s Paws and Effect qualified as a “recognized training facility,” though the issue received no analysis in the appellate decision.  In 2011, the reference to training in the statute was revised to state that a service dog “means a dog specially trained to assist a person with a disability….” The university also noted that the title of Chapter 216C is “Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” indicating a legislative intent only to protect persons with disabilities, not trainers of service dogs without disabilities. 

The appellate court agreed with the trial court that Shumate fell within the class of persons protected by the statute, and added that “[e]nsuring access to public places and accommodations for persons training service dogs will increase the availability of skilled dogs for disabled persons, who will then be better equipped to participate in the ‘social and economic life’ of the community.”  The court elaborated that “[e]nsuring that service dog trainers have full access to places open to the public, and thereby creating a pool of well-trained dogs to assist disabled persons in navigating public facilities, advances the stated aim of chapter 216C.” 

Private Right of Action

The fact that the statute applied to Shumate as a trainer of service dogs was not the only hurdle she had to overcome.  She also had to demonstrate that she had a private right of action under the statutes cited.  It could, after all, be the case that only a district attorney or other official could bring a criminal action under the statute.  The trial court had, in fact, concluded that a simple misdemeanor remedy “communicated the legislature’s exclusion of a private suit for damages.”  

The Iowa Court of Appeals observed that the statutory right of “a person training a service dog to be accompanied by the dog at certain public facilities and places of public accommodation … is more than a general statement of policy; instead it sets out concrete requirements to allow access to trainers accompanied by service dogs.”  The appellate court concluded that the trial court “erred in finding the inclusion of a simple misdemeanor penalty ... revealed a legislative intent to deny a private cause of action,”  adding:

“The overarching purpose of chapter 216C is to guarantee persons with disabilities greater access to public facilities and wider participation in the social and business community, not to craft a criminal offense to punish those who exclude persons training service dogs from public places.”

The court stated that it “would be inconsistent with the underlying purpose of the chapter to pair these robust rights with the meager remedy of a simple misdemeanor prosecution.”  (The maximum penalty if the university were convicted of a misdemeanor would have been a fine of $625.)  The court continued that it “follows that allowing a service dog trainer to enforce this policy by bringing a private right of action, if denied access while accompanied by a service dog, is consistent with the underlying purpose of the statute.”

The Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Shumate’s petition and remanded for further proceedings.


The case is not over.  Shumate will have to support her claims for monetary damages and the university might still make a fundamental-alteration argument with respect to the presence of dogs in training in a law school environment.  This might be difficult, however, given that Drake appears not to have given Shumate much, if any, opportunity to have a dog in a class and demonstrate that it would not interfere with the class or other students. Had she brought one in, and had it been unruly and distracting, then the university would have had other arguments, but this is not stated in the facts as having happened.  If Shumate had been going to medical school, the sanitary requirements of certain environments would have allowed the university to exclude her dogs from those environments.  Law schools, however, are just classrooms with desks and a blackboard. 

Although I think the case is correctly decided, I have to say that when I was going to law school I would not have considered bringing a dog I was training with me.  I began law school at a time when cases were still recited.  A student called on to explain a case had to stand up, summarize the facts of the case and justify a position that it was correctly or incorrectly decided, then withstand sometimes half an hour of debate with a professor over the issues. (I once worked with a lawyer who had been a classmate of John Jay Osborn, author of The Paper Chase.  He assured me that he was in the same class as Osborn when the Harvard law prof Osborn fictionalized as Charles W. Kingsfield gave a dime to a student after a poor recitation and actually said, 'Here’s a dime.  Go call your mother and tell her you’re not going to be a lawyer.') I would not have wanted to have a dog at my feet, and thinking back on it, would not have wanted to risk the dog becoming restless or sensing my anxiety.  Nevertheless, that was a long time ago and law school is apparently somewhat more benign these days. 

Shumate v. Drake University, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 1152 (Ct.App. 2013)

Additional Note.  I received an email from a reader who pointed out that the law school dean did not notify Ms. Shumate to keep her dogs away from the school until 2009.  If she did not attempt to bring the dogs in the first two years of law school, the reader notes, she likely did not bring the dogs to classes where the severe structure I describe would have applied.  This is true.  Third year classes are often rather specialized, sometimes seminars, where a degree of informality is common.  If there are any further orders or opinions in the case, it will be interesting to learn more about when Shumate began trying to bring the dogs to classes.  We might also learn about the dogs themselves.  Were they nearly done with training, or were they only beginning to be trained?  This raises interesting questions.  Could a fundamental-alteration argument apply to dogs at the beginning of training but not to dogs about to go to work?  Also, could a fundamental-alteration argument apply to first-year Torts but not to a third-year seminar on the Law of Urban Planning?

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