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Inn tells family with service dog to scram

JENNAYE DERGE/Durango Herald

April Lynn Elder, her family and her service dog, Tevah, were denied a room at Spanish Trails Inn & Suites on Wednesday. Jeff Wilson, a supervisor at Spanish Trails, says the denial was a mistake resulting from employees’ unfamiliarity with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

A Durango woman says Spanish Trails Inn & Suites violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying her and her family housing because of her service dog.

April Lynn Elder, 32, said Spanish Trail’s property manager Janice Hiemer rejected Elder, her husband and their two children as tenants Wednesday, with Hiemer saying that the hotel’s dog-friendly rooms already were occupied and her cleaning staff did not want to deal with dog hair.

Elder said when she protested Hiemer’s decision, insisting that her dog, Tevah, is a service animal, and not a pet, Hiemer told her, “‘I don’t care if you have a service dog. I don’t want dogs in here.’ Those were her exact words.”

The next day, Elder’s husband, Phil, returned to Spanish Trails to complain that its management’s refusal to rent them a room is illegal under the ADA.

Phil Elder provided The Durango Herald with a recording of his conversation with the woman working at the Spanish Trails front desk Thursday morning.

In the recording, Phil Elder tells the front desk clerk, “That’s discriminatory. I have all the paperwork stating that she is a service dog. The lady told me yesterday that she would not accept us because we have a dog.”

“It’s that it’s a dog, not that it’s a service dog. It’s a dog,” the clerk said.

“It’s illegal. I have paperwork saying that. You cannot say that,” Phil Elder said.

“We’re allowed to say ‘no’ to dogs,” she said.

“You’re not allowed to say ‘no’ to service dogs,” he replied.

“It’s a dog,” she said.

The Department of Justice’s website has a section dedicated to answering “commonly asked questions” about the ADA. One such question: “I have always had a clearly posted ‘no pets’ policy at my establishment. Do I still have to allow animals in?”

The DOJ answers: “Yes. A service animal is not a pet. The ADA requires that you modify your ‘no pets’ policy to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability. This does not mean you must abandon your ‘no pets’ policy altogether but simply that you must make an exception to your general rule for service animals.”

Dogged by problems

Since a snowmobile turned over on April Elder’s leg when she was a teenager – crushing her ankle, fracturing her tibia and breaking her femur – she’s undergone more than 15 surgeries, many on her leg, others for kidney stones.

Elder said she adopted Tevah, her black half pit bull, half boxer mix, four years ago, when Tevah was just a starving, 2-month-old puppy. Now Elder relies on Tevah, her service animal, to get her through nights and days of excruciating pain.

“I have seizures,” she said One time, Tevah woke me up in the middle of the night when I was having a seizure. Another time, she woke up my husband when I was having a seizure. If I take baths, she’s right outside the door.”

In addition to chronic pain, Elder, who is on Medicaid, is struggling with money. She works as an assistant manager at City Cleaners, and her husband works at Giant. “I work full-time, as much as I can, and make 11 bucks an hour. My husband earns about $8.90, and he’s not full-time right now,” she said.

On their income, they support their two children.

“My kids are great – 10 and 12. I can’t be on my feet too long, and especially after standing all day at the cleaners, they really help me out at home with the cleaning,” she said.

Though her family has been teetering on the brink of poverty for a long time, in the last weeks, housing insecurity has plunged them into a full-blown financial crisis. Just a few days ago, the man who owns the place where the Elder family has been staying – a former boyfriend of Elder’s sister – announced he’s putting his property on the market, forcing them to move.

“We’re on the list for low-income housing. Hopefully, that will come within two or three months,” she said.

In the meantime, the Elders turned to Spanish Trails, where rooms run $240-$270 a week, as a stop-gap measure.

“I have nothing against the homeless shelter, but I didn’t want to expose my kids to that. I would prefer to be in a hotel,” she said.

Elder said she pled with Spanish Trails’ property manager Hiemer to accept her family, service dog and all, to no avail.

“I was in tears,” she said. “Doctors are talking about amputating my foot. I don’t want us to be homeless. And I need Tevah.”

Wagging tails, Trails and tribulations

Contacted Thursday, Jeff Wilson, a supervisor at Spanish Trails, said Hiemer, who’s worked as the Trails’ property manager for several years, was out of town and unavailable to comment.

He said he had no direct knowledge of what unfolded between the Elders, Hiemer and the inn’s front-desk clerk. Wilson attributed his colleagues’ behavior to ignorance of the law.

“I’m assuming it was a mistake,” he said, saying front-desk clerk Mandy Wilson (no relation to Jeff), the employee who’d interacted with Phil Elder on Thursday morning, is new to the job.

“It’s embarrassing, but I don’t really know what else to say. If it had been me, I’d allow the service dog,” he said.

Wilson said he had learned about the ADA’s strict protections for service animals only a few months ago, when a man with a service dog tried to rent a room.

“He said, ‘here’s the paperwork, here’s the law.’ I took his word for it and checked him in,” Wilson said. “I was not familiar with that until I had been schooled on the law.”

Indeed, an interview with the Trails’ front-desk clerk Mandy Wilson suggests that the Trails’ spurning the Elders is more to do with well-meaning but misinformed human beings than with dogs.

Mandy Wilson said she probably would have let Phil Elder a pet-friendly room if “he’d provided dog papers for service animals. But he never once showed me dog papers. He had a handicapped sticker that goes into a car, and that’s all he brought in,” she said.

In fact, the ADA states that establishments can’t require people with disabilities to provide certification that their service animals are, in fact, service animals.

Asked if she’d received any training about the ADA, Wilson said, “I haven’t. But for the most part, we try to accommodate everybody. We have pet-friendly rooms, weekly rooms, nightly rooms, monthly rooms.”

She said, “I’m not pet-unfriendly. I own four cats.”

The Elders still face homelessness. On Thursday afternoon, as Phil Elder worked the 3-11 p.m. shift at Giant, April Elder headed to the emergency room with acute pain from what she thought was kidney stones. She had to leave Tevah at home.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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