AUGUSTA — Flash, a service dog, took the news lying down Monday morning when the Maine Human Rights Commission found that his blind owner likely was discriminated against by the Great Wall Buffet in Augusta.
The golden retriever spent the commission meeting lying quietly at the feet of his owner, Bruce Archer of Presque Isle, a rehabilitation counselor with the Maine Department of Labor who succinctly summed up his response to the group’s finding.
“Yahoo,” Archer said after the hearing on his complaint that restaurant staff treated him differently in November 2010 because he dined with his dog. “It’s a good thing for Flash. It’s the only restaurant I’ve ever been treated like this. I’m hoping this will be more of an education piece… I need to be treated like anybody else.”
The commission also found that a Bucksport forklift operator who suffers from asthma was unfairly terminated from his position at a Bangor warehouse.
Archer’s attorney, Kristen Aiello, told the commissioners that her client had been humiliated when he, Flash and Archer’s personal assistant were seated in an isolated area of the large restaurant and followed on their trip to the buffet tables by a woman with an industrial bucket on wheels who mopped up right behind the group.
“Separate but equal is a doctrine we left behind a long time ago,” she said of her client’s treatment at the restaurant. “Rather than welcomed, he was treated almost as if he was a pariah — unwelcomed and segregated. … I think if the commission votes against finding reasonable grounds, we’d be taking a terrible step backward to the days of separate but equal.”
But John Topchik, attorney for the owner of the Great Wall Buffet, told the commissioners that “separate but equal” does not apply in this case.
“There is no evidence that my client discriminated against blind people,” he said. “There’s a reason why dogs aren’t allowed generally in restaurants and kitchens. Some people just don’t like it because they’re concerned about having animals in close proximity with food.”
He said that his client had tried to strike a reasonable balance between the restaurant’s rights and Archer’s rights.
“Flash doesn’t have any rights,” Topchik said.
Commissioner Deborah Whitworth of Portland pointed out that Flash did not seem like the kind of animal that would cause distress.
“The service animal seems more contained than I’ve seen some people in restaurants, relative to cleanliness and disposition,” she said. “The service animal doesn’t seem to be untrained, like maybe a jumping-around Chihuahua, or another animal that would be sniffing at food.”
If Archer and the Great Wall Buffet now cannot settle the dispute through mediation, Archer can sue in Superior Court.
In another decision, the commissioners found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that William Brzozowski of Bucksport was subject to unlawful discrimination and unlawful retaliation by the Galt Block Warehouse Company due to disability when the company terminated him in 2010. They did not find reasonable grounds to believe that Project Staffing, Inc., the company through which Brzozowski was hired, discriminated or retaliated against him.
Attorney Lisa Butler told the commissioners that a trail of emails between officials at Galt Block and Project Staffing, Inc., showed that her client’s asthma-related health problems were a reason why he was let go.
“Emails are a wonderful thing because people write down what they’re thinking,” she said.
In Investigator Robert Beauchesne’s report to the commission about the case, he wrote that Galt Block’s alarm at accommodating Brzozowski’s breathing issues was apparent in those emails.
In Sept. 2010, A Galt Block manager wrote in an email to the staffing firm that she was “at her wits end with this man. He seems to want me to tell him what to do about his health and I WILL NOT do so. It makes me feel like he does not know enough to keep himself healthy,” according to the report.
Beauchesne told the panel Monday that Brzozowski was “a marginal employee at best,” but the communication about his health problems was troubling.
Gene Coughlin, an attorney for Galt Block, told the commissioners that the man had been let go because of performance problems and insubordination — not discrimination.
The next step for Brzozowski and Galt Block Warehouse Company will be to try to resolve the matter through conciliation. If that is not successful, Butler said that they would then decide whether to take the case to court.