Court: Plasma Donation Center’s Policy
Based on “Speculation, Generalizations, or Stereotypes”
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals (covering federal courts in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Virgin Islands) recently issued an opinion in the case of Matheis v CSL Plasma, Inc. The plaintiff in the case, George Matheis, challenged CSL Plasma’s policy, which categorically denies donation opportunities to individuals who use service animals for anxiety disorders.
CSL operates a plasma donation center in York, Pennsylvania, where blood plasma is extracted from individual “donors,” who are paid. The donation process can be stressful, taking up to two hours per session and involving an individual health screening. Mr. Matheis had undergone this process successfully about 90 times, earning a few hundred dollars a month over the course of approximately a year.
However, when he arrived at CSL with his newly acquired service dog, explaining that he would be using the dog because of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he was told that he would not be allowed to donate unless he provided a letter from his healthcare provider, saying he could donate safely without the dog.
CSL raised two fundamental arguments in defense of its policy. First, it argued that a plasma donation center is not subject to Title III of the ADA because it does not provide goods or services to the public in exchange for money; rather it pays members of the public for plasma, which it then sells to third parties (such as manufacturers). This argument has been raised in other courts, and has resulted in differing opinions.
In this case, the lower court and the court of appeals agreed that CSL is covered by Title III. The appeals court said that the “direction of monetary compensation” between business and customer does not necessarily indicate whether a business is a place of public accommodation (in this case, a “service establishment”). The court likened the plasma donation center to several other types of businesses which are generally considered public accommodations, including banks, pawn shops, and recycling centers. These businesses may also compensate their customers, or make purchases from them for the purpose of resale (as pawn shops often do).
Secondly, CSL argued that, even if it were covered by Title III, its policy of excluding people who use service animals for anxiety disorders is a legitimate safety rule. This is where the lower court and the court of appeals parted company. The district court had ruled in favor of CSL, but the appeals court found the “evidence” supporting the policy “unimpressive.”
According to the ADA, a legitimate safety rule must be based on “actual risks and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities.” CSL’s defense of its policy relied on a single declaration from its divisional medical director, who opined that donors “with severe anxiety may be unable to follow directions, cause disturbances, impact the donation process” and “present serious health and safety risks to themselves, medical staff, and other donors.”
The declaration also addressed the use of service animals: “CSL’s general policy is to defer a donor who requires more than two medications daily or a service animal for anxiety, until the need for medications or service animal decreases. … This policy is not directed to the use of a service dog, as CSL allows service dogs for vision- and hearing-impaired donors, but is based on the severity of the anxiety.”
The court said these statements seemed “clearly speculative and to generalize widely about individuals who use psychiatric service animals, all of whom CSL apparently views as people with ‘severe anxiety.’ No medical justification or other scientific evidence undergirds CSL’s implicit conclusion that all those persons have ‘severe anxiety’ and will put staff, other donors, or themselves at risk when donating plasma. … This is clearly inadequate to show that CSL’s policy is based on actual risk and not based on speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations.”
The case will be returned to the lower court in hopes of a final resolution.