Diss Service II: Shofuso updates service animal policy as SEPTA and Rodeway Inn face lawsuits

In November, Philadelphia Weekly published “Diss Service,” an expose of a controversial exclusion policy of service animals inside the main house at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden.The historic site has since changed its policy, allowing service animals with protective booties…

In November, Philadelphia Weekly published “Diss Service,” an expose of a controversial exclusion policy of service animals inside the main house at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden.

The historic site has since changed its policy, allowing service animals with protective booties into the house. When asked for comment, Shofuso declined, saying that the policy change is part of an ongoing process and were not able to comment at this time.

It should be noted that the move is a mere minor victory in a city riddled with discrimination against those with disabilities. Stephen Cristal, an attorney with Philadelphia-based law firm Goldfein & Joseph, PC is currently handling two active cases of alleged service animal discrimination.

Representing plaintiffs who both have epilepsy, the accused defendants are Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority as well as Rodeway Inn Center City and one of its managers – listed as “Brian K. of Philadelphia  – and Choice Hotels of Phoenix.

Epilepsy is just one of the many disabilities that a service animal can be trained to medically assist.

“For people with epilepsy, a service dog can increase independence, safety and community inclusion. These animals are trained to tasks such as alerting to seizures, keeping the person safe during a seizure, finding help, and bringing emergency medications,” said Elizabeth Beil, president and CEO of Epilepsy Foundation Eastern Pennsylvania which promotes education, support and advocacy for the disorder. “Some seizure alert dogs can provide enough notice to allow their owner to get to a safe environment before the seizure begins. They are a complement to a person’s medical treatment.”

Statistically speaking, one in 26 people will develop epilepsy in their lifetime and one in 10 people will experience a single seizure, as noted by Beil.  

“Imagine not knowing when you may have a seizure and not knowing if the people around you would know what to do to help you?” Beil hypothesized. “Knowing that your service dog can and will respond, allows improved quality of life for people with epilepsy.”

Philadelphia resident Jaharra Davis is one of Cristal’s clients who has a professionally trained and certified dog who wears an identifying vest —none of which is required by the ADA.

On record since 2016, Davis has been repeatedly harassed by SEPTA bus drivers and aides for her use of a service animal. Among other alleged discriminatory acts, SEPTA workers have refused her from coming onto buses, ejected her from buses and have called the police on her.

Davis also cited that employees consistently ask her for “government papers” to validate the dog’s status as a service animal, a type of documentation that does not exist. Moreover, under the ADA, the only two questions a business is allowed to ask someone with a dog is whether or not the animal is being used because of a disability and what work or tasks is the animal trained to perform.

In 2010, the ADA was revised to tighten the language and guidelines on what qualifies a service animal. The only exceptions to equal access to a premise with a service animal is if its presence would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the program, the handler is unable to control the dog or the dog is not house broken.

Davis has filed a number of complaints, which have been “usually if not always found to be valid.” Even though the employees and aides were in violation of the ADA Title II and SEPTA’s own service animal policy, little to no punitive action was taken.

While some of the perpetrators had to watch an ADA training video, the lawsuit argues that this is not sufficient for retraining. The suit recommends new ADA training procedures and identification markers to be included on SEPTA Key Cards or Reduced Transit Fare Cards to indicate that the patron is allowed to bring their service animal on board.

According to the suit, the lack of ADA compliance has created public transportation “hotbeds of bigotry against the disabled.”  In turn, people such as Davis have anxiety and fear around using SEPTA’s services.

While the stated “hotbeds” are general knowledge among disability communities, it can not be supported by data. When asked, the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center said, “they are not aware of any source of comprehensive data on reports or complaints related to service animals, either under the ADA or state or local laws.” The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) has limited data on discrimination of service animals, and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations said they haven’t received a complaint since 2012.

PW reached out to SEPTA, but they were unable to comment due to the case being in active litigation.

“I have found that there are certain businesses in the Greater Philadelphia area that do not fully appreciate the expanding role of service animals in the lives of the disabled, for example, the training of small dogs for early detection of an imminent seizure of a person with a seizure disorder,” said Cristal. “The abilities of these dogs are quite impressive and health care providers are more and more recommending service animals as part of treatment protocols.”

Cristal’s other client, Jeffrey Galeone was thrown out of the Rodeway Inn at 1208 Walnut Street in Philadelphia this past summer when he tried to book a night with his service animal. As stated in the lawsuit, Galeone disclosed his disability to the manager, Brian K., explaining his lap-size dog, who wore a self-identifying medallion, was needed for a seizure disorder. Brian, however, did not believe the customer.

“Brian mocked plaintiff for being disabled. Brian said that only blind people have service dogs. Brian made fun of plaintiff and belittled plaintiff because plaintiff suffered from a disability,” according to the lawsuit, which argues this in violation of the ADA Title III. “Brian informed plaintiff it was the policy of the hotel to deny him entry because of his service dog. Brian laughed at plaintiff and mocked and belittled him all the more when plaintiff became upset by Brian’s actions.”

After the incident, Galeone wrote an online review which relayed his experience at the inn. In retaliation, Brian responded online, only to continue to mock Galeone for his disability and falsely accuse him of faking a seizure disorder.

PW reached out from comment from Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP on behalf of their client Choice Hotels International, but the firm was unable to respond due to the case being in litigation.

TWITTER: @ANDREAJCANTOR