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Stalder v. Colorado Mesa University.

2024 COA 29. No. 23CA0311. Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act—Americans with Disabilities Act—Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress—Rights of Individuals With Service Animals—Legitimate Suspicions Doctrine.

March 28, 2024

Stalder attended Colorado Mesa University (CMU) from 2019 through 2022. In 2020, Stalder obtained a dog, Ruger, which he trained to help him deal with his mental health issues. In 2021, Stalder entered the CMU gym with Ruger. Nordine, the CMU director of campus recreation, stopped Stalder and asked him about Ruger. Stalder told Nordine that Ruger was an emotional support animal. Nordine contacted Lang, CMU director of advocacy and health, who told Stalder that only service animals, as opposed to therapy dogs, were allowed in campus buildings and that Ruger was not allowed in any campus buildings. Stalder then registered Ruger as a service animal at Stalder went to the gym and presented Ruger’s badge, but Lang responded that there was no registry for service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and that the badge did not make Ruger a service animal. Ultimately, Lang told Stalder that he could not bring Ruger on campus unless Stalder provided documentation that Ruger was a trained service animal. Stalder sued CMU, Nordine, and Lang (defendants) under the ADA and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), and brought an intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claim. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants on all claims.

On appeal, Stalder contended that the district court erred by granting summary judgment on his ADA and CADA claims. Here, Stalder testified at his deposition that he adopted Ruger at the end of November 2020 and that by the end of January 2021, Ruger was trained as a service dog to remove him from situations that cause him to have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depressional episodes, and was also trained to provide pressure therapy and remind Stalder when to take his medications. The tasks that Ruger performs go beyond merely providing Stalder with emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship, so Stalder’s deposition testimony about Ruger’s training and what tasks Ruger could perform is sufficient to demonstrate a genuine dispute of fact as to whether Ruger was a service animal in February 2021. The district court’s grant of summary judgment was therefore improper.

Stalder also argued that there is a genuine factual dispute about whether defendants engaged in impermissible inquiry by asking him to release his medical records and show proof of Ruger’s training before granting him an ADA accommodation, contending that the “legitimate suspicions” doctrine does not apply. CMU maintained that federal courts have held that a public entity may engage in further appropriate inquiries when it has legitimate suspicions about whether a dog is a service animal and when such additional inquiry is not used for harassment. The applicable ADA regulation, 28 CFR § 35.136(f), allows public entities to specifically inquire on only two issues: whether the animal is required because of a disability, and what task the animal is trained to perform. Further, CMU cited no cases that support its use of the legitimate suspicions doctrine. Accordingly, the district court’s reliance on this doctrine was erroneous.

Stadler further asserted that the district court erred by entering summary judgment for defendants on his IIED claim because it only considered the video of the interaction between him and Lang. However, the contents of the video and Stalder’s additional allegations are insufficient as a matter of law to rise to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct required to support an IIED claim. Further, even assuming that Lang violated the ADA by requesting training documentation, this conduct also would not rise to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct necessary to support an IIED claim.

The judgment was affirmed as to the grant of summary judgment on the IIED claim. The judgment was reversed in all other respects and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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