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Colorado Court of Appeals Cautions Against Questioning a Service Animal’s Status

By Justin Miller

In a decision that impacts public entities and business owners across the state, the Colorado Court of Appeals recently rebuked attempts to question the status of a service animal—even in the presence of evidence that places the animal’s legitimacy in doubt.   

In Stalder v. Colorado Mesa University, 2024COA29, Plaintiff Dustin Stalder successfully appealed the dismissal of his claim for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (“CADA”). Stalder alleged he was discriminatorily denied access to his service animal at his university gym.   

Stalder recently purchased a dog named Ruger from a friend. Stalder initially claimed Ruger was an emotional support animal. However, after watching a few YouTube videos, Stalder decided to train Ruger and claim him as a service animal. After a few months of ownership, Stalder “registered” Ruger through an online service and purchased a vest and badge for the dog. Websites like the one Stalder used are not regulated by the ADA and allow anyone to represent, truthfully or not, that their dog is a service animal. Officials at the university questioned the legitimacy of Ruger’s status given this history, and also because the dog appeared poorly behaved in public and refused to obey Stalder’s commands. 

The trial court initially dismissed Stalder’s claim for discrimination, finding he had not proven that Ruger was a service animal. Instead, it appeared to the trial court that Stalder had merely undertaken some “internet research, watched ‘some random’ videos, spent an unknown amount of time training Ruger, and then declared Ruger ‘set’ after two months of ownership.”  

The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s decision. It highlighted the absence of any federally-mandated training standards and announced there is no federal or state level requirement for the amount of training a service animal receives.  

In overturning the dismissal of Stalder’s case, the Court of Appeals rejected the “legitimate suspicions” doctrine. Under the ADA, a place of public accommodation is only permitted to ask two questions about the status of a service animal: (1) whether the animal is required because of a disability; and (2) what task the animal is trained to perform. Some jurisdictions, however, had previously permitted public entities to engage in further inquiries when it harbored “legitimate suspicions” about the animal’s status, so long as the questioning was not being used to harass the individual.  

The Court of Appeals firmly rejected this doctrine. The decision makes clear that public entities and business owners are not permitted to investigate or inquire further about the status of a service animal, outside of asking if the animal is required because of a disability or what task it has been trained to perform. And, as the Court of Appeals was careful to note, this “is not a taxing requirement” to meet.  

Public entities and Colorado business owners are often faced with difficult decisions with complex implications under both federal and state law. If you have questions or concerns about service animals, emotional support animals, or any other consideration under the ADA or CADA, the attorneys at Caplan & Earnest are well equipped to resolve them.  

Nothing in this article is intended as legal advice and readers should always consult their attorneys before taking any action. 


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