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Service Dog Law Watch: Are There Any Limits?

In the last two weeks I've seen a flurry of stories about service dogs. Usually they are about businesses that get themselves into trouble by refusing to serve or admit customers who have service dogs with them. But sometimes the stories are about businesses that allow the dogs to come in, only to aggravate other customers.

In late October, CBC News reported the story of Emily Ainsworth, an autistic nine-year-old girl who was asked to leave a store called Winners back in July because she was accompanied by her service dog, Levi. Emily's mother spoke to the store manager, who was very apologetic and upset about the incident. The store later sent Emily a letter formally apologizing to the family, and included a $25 gift card for Emily featuring a puppy on the cover.

On Sunday, Oct. 23, Emily, Levi and her mother visited Winners to use Emily's gift card and -- wait for it -- "were told by store staff that Levi, whose harness identifies him as a service dog, was not allowed into the store." D'oh!! After her daughter was kicked out of the store for the second time for having a service dog, Ms. Ainsworth filed a complaint with police and the Alberta Human Rights Commission. She says she wants the store to actually educate its store associates this time. Winners says allowing service animals in stores is "standard policy" and that it will look into what happened and reach out to the Ainsworths directly.

Next up we have the law firm of Larkin Axelrod Ingrassia and Tetenbaum, which managed to get itself sued over a service dog issue by the Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York. On Tuesday of this week, Reuters reports, prosecutors filed a lawsuit alleging that the firm refused to meet with a disabled client who was "accompanied by a service dog trained to assist her with day-to-day tasks."

Specifically, prosecutors allege, the law firm refused to allow one of its own clients, Lauren Klejmont, into its office in 2009 because she was accompanied by her service dog, a German Shepherd named Reicha. Then in January 2010, prosecutors allege, Klejmont was asked to visit the firm to sign documents but was told to "either leave her dog at home or meet with the attorney in the parking lot while the dog stayed in the car."

As reported by the New York Law Journal, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stated that it was particularly disturbing to him that "a law firm and a partner in the firm would so flagrantly violate such a clear and well-established law, as was alleged in this case." He added that "of all people, lawyers should know better." According to The Associated Press, the law firm has stated that it "arranged to accommodate the dog after the first incident" but that "the lawyer in the second incident acted on his own and violated policy."

On the flip side of today's Service Dog Law Watch, there is a report today on Consumerist from a person who was surprised to see a very large, 80-pound dog sitting in a booth (with his paws on the table) near him and his wife at Outback Steakhouse. The man was put off by the dog, and told the manager he was no longer hungry. The manager explained that the person with the dog had been to the restaurant on one other occasion, and that the dog helped its owner with "some kind of impulse disorder." The manager also promised that after the dog left, the restaurant "completely sterilized the booth."

The surprised customer wondered if there was any definitive criteria for what qualifies as a "service animal." An "impulse control dog?" he wrote. "What's next, a dog that helps people who have ADHD?" He also wondered if there were any health restrictions on service animals -- are they really allowed to sit right in the booth with their paws on the table or are they supposed to stay on the floor?

Does anyone know the answers to these questions? 

Posted by Bruce Carton on November 10, 2011 at 04:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

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