Disabled woman charges inn with discrimination

November 23, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

A Virginia teacher who uses a wheelchair said she has filed a complaint with the state Human Relations Commission against Bullock's Airport Inn in Westminster, charging that the establishment discriminated against her when she took her service dog to the restaurant Oct. 16.

Roberta Stein of Alexandria has multiple sclerosis and is accompanied by a service dog everywhere she goes. The dog, a 9-year-old standard poodle named Lazar, is trained to perform such tasks as opening doors and picking up dropped items for Mrs. Stein.

Mrs. Stein said the restaurant violated state and federal laws that specify that service dogs may enter public places and handicapped people cannot be denied service at public places because of their disabilities.

Restaurateur Don Bullock, who owns Bullock's Airport Inn, denied Friday that he mistreated the woman and her party, which included her husband and a Westminster couple.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Mr. Bullock said.

"They got the best care they could have gotten . . . We couldn't have been any nicer."

Mrs. Stein said the restaurant staff initially refused her service, saying the dog could not enter the establishment because of health department regulations.

She said she was served only after she showed Mr. Bullock a copy of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which says service dogs may enter public places, and after she threatened to sue him.

But Mrs. Stein said she and her party were forced to wait about 20 minutes for a booth next to the door, although other tables in the restaurant were available. She said she was told she could not be seated anywhere else because her dog could not walk past the buffet table.

"There isn't a time when I go out when I am not questioned -- sometimes harassed," said Mrs. Stein.

But this time, she said, "It was the worst treatment I've ever had."

Mr. Bullock said, "At first, I said there's no dogs allowed in here."

But he said after Mrs. Stein showed him a copy of the law, "I said, 'OK, I never knew about that.' "

After that, he said, the dog was not an issue. He said he did not tell Mrs. Stein that Lazar could not walk past the buffet.

"We didn't say anything about the dog," he said. "That didn't even enter into it."

Mr. Bullock said Mrs. Stein's party did have to wait for a table, but was seated at the first table for six that became available. He rTC said the party needed a table for six so the wheelchair and the dog could be kept out of the aisle.

Mrs. Stein was accompanied by her husband, Gary, and by Bernardine Bankert and John Bankert III, who are distant relatives.

Mrs. Stein said her party did not need or ask for a table for six. They only needed a table for four, she said.

She also said Mr. Bullock owes her an apology.

"I haven't asked for any money at all, nor do I intend to," said Mrs. Stein. "I do this for public education.

"I want them to understand that just letting me in the door is not enough."

Mrs. Stein, who said she has taught disability awareness workshops, said she has filed similar complaints against an Alaska restaurant and a Virginia theater.

Mr. Bankert said he and his wife have filed complaints about the Oct. 16 incident with the Carroll County Community Relations Commission and the Maryland Human Relations Commission. Their complaint alleges they were denied access to a public accommodation because of Mrs. Stein's handicap.

"To me," Mr. Bankert said, "It was like years ago, when they would say to the black people, 'You have to sit in the back of the bus.' "

He said he and his wife each are seeking $100,000 in damages.

"I am horrified that it happened in my community," Mr. Bankert said. "I do not wish to ever have it happen again, to anybody."

Mr. Bullock said he would not apologize to Mr. Bankert.

"He wants money," Mr. Bullock said. "I wouldn't give him one penny."

He also said he would not apologize to Mrs. Stein.

"If anything, they owe this restaurant an apology," he said yesterday. "They didn't want to wait their turn like everyone else."

Mr. Bullock's lawyer, Damian L. Halstad, said yesterday that Mr. Bullock had not received notice of any official complaints by Mrs. Stein or the Bankerts.

Virginia Harrison, head of the Carroll County Community Relations Commission, said Friday the panel cannot handle the Bankerts' complaint in the form in which it was made.

"He wants to sue for a certain amount of money, and that's not what we do," she said.

Ms. Harrison said if Mr. Bankert wanted to seek an apology or a change of restaurant policy instead of monetary damages, the commission could investigate the complaint.

Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the state Human Relations Commission, said complaints brought before the state body are confidential unless the commission finds a violation and there is no private settlement. She would not confirm whether any complaints have been filed in this case.

Tiffany Crone, director of community hygiene for the Carroll County Health Department, said the Health Department received a complaint about the incident Oct. 18 and sent a sanitarian to Bullock's that day to tell its management that service dogs are allowed in restaurants.

She said the department has no authority to revoke a restaurant's license for not admitting a service dog.

There are about 10,000 service dogs in the United States, said Michelle Cobey, information specialist with the Delta Society, a Renton, Wash., organization that encourages pet ownership and advocates for the rights of people with service animals.

She said it is not unusual for service dogs to be refused access to public places.

"I deal with this all the time," she said. "It's really a lack of education."

Ms. Cobey said she encourages service dog owners who are denied access to public places to file complaints and contact the news media.

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