By Richard Hanson, University of Technology Sydney
This case note was originally published in the Animal Law Case Book, ed Sophie Riley (1st ed, 2015) and has been republished with minor edits by Voiceless with permission from the editor.
Citation: Sheehan v Tin Can Bay Country Club  FMCA 95
Court – Federal Magistrates Court
Judge – Raphael FM
Date of Judgment – 9 May 2002
FACTS OF THE CASE
Sheehan, who was a war veteran, had attended the Tin Can Bay Country Club since 1997. In 1998, he trained a dog, Bonnie, to help him relieve symptoms of social anxiety. He began to take Bonnie to the club and after some time, stopped using a leash with Bonnie. Bonnie was not always with Sheehan at the club and was sometimes left outside. Bonnie did not accompany Sheehan on the golf course. Although initially insisting that Bonnie be kept on a leash, the club moved to ban Bonnie from the club.
Sheehan alleged that banning Bonnie from the club was discriminatory given that he had a disability. Sheehan first complained to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. He argued that as a disabled person he was unfairly treated by the club because of Bonnie. The Human Rights Commission held that a broad definition of assistance dog under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (‘the Act’) was ultimately “unsustainable” because it allowed any person who used a dog for companionship to claim that it alleviated a disability. Sheehan appealed the decision to the Federal Magistrates Court.
- Whether Bonnie was an assistance dog for the purposes of the Act.
- Whether the club unlawfully discriminated against Sheehan under the Act.
Bonnie’s characterisation as an assistance dog
The Magistrate found that “when the dog is outside the premises not in the direct control of Mr Sheehan and not being utilised by Mr Sheehan for his aid and comfort, [she] cannot be an assistance dog.” It was also found that when Bonnie was not by Sheehan’s side, she was not an assistance animal on the basis that there was no eye contact between Sheehan and Bonnie. However, the Magistrate found that the requirement that Bonnie be tethered when she was inside the club and under the control of Sheehan was unreasonable. The Magistrate identified that the evidence established that Bonnie “was very well trained and obedient and under the control of Mr Sheehan” and that Bonnie “would not react much more differently from that of a trained guide dog and no one suggests that a blind or other sight-disabled person would have to spend his or her entire time holding a guide dog, particularly in a situation in a club.” In this respect, Bonnie qualified as an assistance dog.
The question of unlawful discrimination
With respect to whether Mr Sheehan was discriminated against, the Court had to consider whether the actions of the respondent had directly or indirectly resulted in unfavourable treatment of Mr Sheehan compared to a hypothetical person without his disability. His Honour held that:
Given the evidence of the training of Bonnie, I don’t think that the conduct of the club passed the reasonable test in requiring her to be tethered whilst under Mr Sheehan’s direct control. I am of the view that the club did breach the Act by requiring the applicant to comply with a requirement (leashing his dog) with which a substantial proportion of persons without his disability are able to comply, which is not reasonable having regard to the circumstances of the case and with which the applicant does not comply.
The Court ordered that the Tin Can Bay Country Club permit Sheehan and Bonnie to attend the club’s premises, and that Bonnie could remain unleashed while under the control of Sheehan. It also ordered that the club pay Sheehan $1500 in damages.
This case establishes that dogs providing companionship to people for psychological conditions may qualify as “assistance dogs”. The case also reinforced the way in which the property status of animals enables them to be used to service a range of human needs. Significantly, Bonnie’s status as an “assistance dog” was tied to her precise function at any given time, “when the dog is outside the premises not in the direct control of Mr Sheehan and not being utilised by Mr Sheehan for his aid and comfort, [she] cannot be an assistance dog.”