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Appeals Court Vacates Jury Verdict In Service Dog Case

October 7, 2018

A federal appeals court has overturned a 2017 civil jury verdict in favor of a local health care provider that barred a student from bringing her service dog to school, ruling the trial judge gave flawed instructions to jurors.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case involving Allied Services Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, operator of the dePaul School, back to U.S. District Court Judge Malachy Mannion for further proceedings.

Traci and Joseph Berardelli of Dunmore filed suit against Allied in 2014, alleging the private school violated their then-11-year-old daughter’s civil rights by refusing to allow the child’s service dog, a golden retriever named Buddy, to attend classes with her.

According to the complaint, the girl suffered from severe epilepsy, and Buddy was specially trained to detect signs of an oncoming seizure.

Allied argued school officials rightfully denied permission for the animal to accompany the girl because it would be a distraction to her schoolmates and create problems for another student who was allergic to dogs.

The lawsuit went to trial and jurors returned a verdict for Allied in February 2017, finding the school did not violate the girl’s rights. The Berardellis appealed to the 3rd Circuit.

In vacating the verdict and returning the case to the district court, a three-judge 3rd Circuit panel found Mannion gave improper instructions to the jury.

The court said Mannion instructed jurors that the Berardellis had the initial burden to show the accommodation they were seeking with respect to their daughter was reasonable, and only if the jury found the parents met that threshold would the burden shift to Allied to prove the request was unreasonable.

Ruling on what it described as a matter of first impression, the appeals court panel said the instructions were flawed for two reasons.

First, according to the decision, the trial judge advised jurors the parents had a burden to prove their requested accommodation was reasonable when, under the appeals court’s interpretation of the federal Rehabilitation Act, it was reasonable as a matter of law.

The appeals court held the accommodation of a disabled person’s request to be accompanied by a service animal, absent exceptional circumstances, is “reasonable per se” under the act.

The instructions then conflated the Rehabilitation Act’s requirement that the accommodation be reasonable with a separate and distinct requirement that it be necessary, the judges said.

Attorney James J. Conaboy, who represents Allied Services, petitioned the 3rd Circuit for a rehearing on the appeal. The court denied the petition Sept. 12.

Contact the writer:

dsingleton@timesshamrock.com;

570-348-9132

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