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Restaurant owners struggle with gray areas in ADA laws regarding service animals

Posted at 4:10 AM, Jul 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-22 18:26:02-04

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — You may have seen a person with their dog on a leash the last time you were at a restaurant or store. While some businesses may be dog friendly, dogs are not allowed inside restaurants unless they are a service animal.

But, many restaurants owners feel the law gives them no power to enforce that.

It can take anywhere from three to 18 months to train a service animal.

“We train specifically for what that individual needs,” said Rick Bailey, owner of LoveDog Inc. in Palm City.

Bailey focuses on training service animals for people with mobility issues or mental disabilities like autism or PTSD.

“A lot of people are looking for a reason why somebody needs the dog with them, and a lot of times we can’t see that,” said Bailey.

Most business owners get that. Under “The Americans with Disabilities Act,” a service animal is allowed to go anywhere a person can, including inside restaurants where non-service animals are prohibited.

“We are very much dog friendly,” said Avi Sekeral, owner of Prosecco Cafe in Palm Beach Gardens.

Sekeral welcomes dogs on the outdoor patio of his restaurant. Only service animals can follow a customer inside.

“There’s a few who understand the law and take advantage of the law,” said Sekeral.

Many restaurant owners say it is frustrating that there is no way to identify a service animal. Under the ADA, there is no service animal registry or license recognized.

“The law requires us, allows us, to ask only two questions from a service dog: is this a service dog? If the answer is yes, that’s it,” added Sekeral.

The second question Sekeral is allowed to ask is: what task is the dog trained to assist you with? But then owners must rely on the dog owner’s honesty.

"It's really difficult for business owners to make that assessment because you can't make it visually. A service animal can be any type of dog," said Holly Griffin, attorney at Gunster.

Sekeral has run into issues with the gray areas in the law. He said a customer with a service animal refused to put her dog on the floor inside his restaurant.

"We kept on asking her very politely, it's fine, it's not about the dog, it's about the dog needs to be please on the floor, paws on the ground," said Sekeral.

Bailey said there is no reason why the dog would need to sit in a chair.

"If you have a well trained service dog, he's under the table, he's behind your chair, he's quiet, he's focused on what you need him to do," said Bailey.

"The other customers didn't appreciate to see a dog sitting in a seat," said Sekeral who said customers complained to one of his employees.

Griffin says under the ADA, Sekeral does have some rights.

"If it is a legitimate service animal, they should be either carried with their person or their feet should be on the ground. So, a restaurant does not have to allow a service animal to sit in a chair or sit at the table," added Griffin.

Sekeral feels the ADA should require service animals to wear an identifiable vest or collar to avoid any confusion.

Bailey said he has received calls from people who are not disabled who are looking for service animals to live in a certain homeowner's association or apartment that may otherwise not allow animals.

"It's hurting the people who actually need these dogs," said Bailey.

It's a second degree misdemeanor to falsely represent animals as a service animal. But there are also potential criminal and civil repercussions for a business owner who discriminates against a disabled individual.

There is also a lot of confusion about what emotional support animals are. Those animals offer emotional support and are not service animals. They have not been trained to assist with a disability and are not covered by the ADA but can fall under the protection of other acts like the Fair Housing Act.

If a service animal is not under control and is disruptive, under the ADA, a business owner has a right to ask its handler to remove the animal, but services must continue to be available to the person with the disability.