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Tennessee Law Distinguishes ESAs from Service Animals in Restaurants


Tennessee restaurant owners have likely experienced patrons bringing emotional support animals (ESAs) into their restaurants. Those owners have also likely wondered what restrictions exist under current law on allowing ESAs into their restaurants. Tennessee has answered some of those questions with Tennessee Senate Bill SB 1595, an amendment to Tenn. Code Ann. § 6-54-135, which went into effect on March 15, 2024.

ESAs are now distinguishable from service animals in Tennessee. Specifically, ESAs are not considered “service animals” in Tennessee. Tenn. Code Ann. § 6-54-135 now “prohibits emotional support animals that are not trained, or being trained, to perform tasks or work for a person with a disability from indoor areas of food service establishments.”

This specification between service animals and ESAs may affect your Tennessee restaurant. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are a reasonable accommodation. Thus, if a patron seeks to bring their “service animal” to your restaurant, your restaurant must provide reasonable accommodations to the patron. Under § 35.136, a restaurant owner may refuse to allow the service animal if it is “out of control or not housebroken.”

Tenn. Code Ann. § 6-54-135 offers additional protections to Tennessee restaurant owners by distinguishing ESAs from service animals. Notably, both under the ADA and Tennessee law, a restaurant owner can still only determine the veracity of a service animal claim by asking the following: “(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” In response to the first question, a patron may state that their animal is an ESA rather than a service animal. Thus, it would be appropriate in Tennessee to deny ESA entry into your restaurant.

If you or your employees are still suspicious of the animal’s alleged service status even after the patron answers yes to both questions, there are still limited circumstances when you can ask the patron to remove the animal. For example, animals can be asked to leave when they have an accident in your restaurant or the owner cannot control their animal.

Tennessee courts have not ruled on what behavior the service animal must exhibit to be considered “out of control.” The ADA offers guidance on whether a service animal is “out of control,” such as excessive barking. So, if the service animal is causing a disturbance, and the owner cannot control it, that service animal would be considered “out of control” under the ADA. Presumably, Tennessee would follow federal law on this issue, but it is uncertain.

What constitutes reasonable accommodations for restaurant patrons is a proverbial minefield for Tennessee restaurant owners. It is important for you to consult an attorney for guidance on these ever-changing issues of law. Chartwell attorneys are available to help restaurant owners navigate the potential implications of Tennessee SB 1595.