Matthew Ellison’s depression and social anxiety tended to make it hard for the 30-year-old North Dakota man to sleep or even think clearly. Sometimes he got panic attacks.
So Ellison got a certified service dog. It monitors his behavior and warns him when it looks like he’s spiraling. That gives him a chance to move somewhere safe and calm down.
He explained all this to his bosses at Transport America, an Eagan trucking company. Unfortunately, Transport already had rules about pets. Drivers aren’t allowed to have dogs with them during orientation, or inside company facilities. They’re supposed to remain kenneled or leashed outside all day. If Ellison wanted to have the dog with him in the truck, that was fine… as long as he paid the company a $400 fee and an additional $3 every week.
Ellison spelled all this out in a suit filed in federal court, with the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He suing Transport under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act.
“Allowing Ellison to have the dog accompany him as a reasonable accommodation would not have posed an undue hardship upon Transport America,” the complaint says. Instead, the company “refused.”
Last week, Transport settled, agreeing to pay Ellison $22,500 in damages and change its policies on dogs. The company didn’t answer requests for comment.
In a statement, the commission’s Chicago Director Julianne Bowman called it a “timely reminder” that companies need to do more than just tolerate service animals. They need to make accommodations rather than “burdening” the employee with making it work.
“Reminder” is probably an appropriate phrase. Ellison’s case is far from unique. Just a few weeks ago, Twin Cities woman Amena Thomas, who is blind, described the difficulty she had getting Ubers or Lyfts when she had her service dog, Titus, with her.
“I’ll send a message saying, ‘I am blind and use a service dog,’” she told Kare 11. But rather than responding, some drivers would just cancel the ride or refuse her at the curb. The companies have already been legally required not to discriminate against people who need service animals, but Thomas said her complaints kept going nowhere.
“I get apologies, but no action,” she said.
Last year, there was the case of Robert Mingo of Minneapolis and his border collie-springer spaniel. Mingo, who’s uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy, alleged he and his service dog had been refused service twice at the same West Broadway McDonald’s. Once, he even tried rolling his wheelchair past the drive-through window, to no avail.
According to Bring Me the News, he’d told the store manager his right to have his dog with him was protected under the law. The store manager allegedly replied. “I am the law,” and other customers had a bit of a chuckle at Mingo’s expense.
Mingo sued, and McDonald’s eventually settled, but the details are confidential.