A man who says he was discriminated against for having a service dog in a restaurant earlier this month in Vallecito has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s disability rights division.
Chris Suter, a 52-year-old disabled veteran, said he went to Pura Vida Café on Sept. 12 to eat with his family and a friend. Shortly after sitting down, a man who identified himself as the owner told him no dogs were allowed in the restaurant, Suter said.
Suter said he told Gary Peach, owner of Pura Vida, that his dog was a service animal, and that the Americans with Disabilities Act federally protects and allows people with disabilities to take service animals into restaurants.
“He (Peach) said ‘The ADA does not apply to me, it’s my restaurant, get out,’” Suter said.
A few days after the incident with Suter, a lengthy post appeared on Pura Vida’s Facebook page that addressed issues with dogs in the restaurant.
“I cannot and will not go along with the idiotic service dog (expletive),” the post reads. “It is a very poorly written joke of a law that was not thought out for even a minute. ... I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
The post has since been taken down from the restaurant’s page.
Suter said the conversation in the restaurant became heated, and he eventually left. But before he left, Suter, who teaches classes about service dog law and etiquette, gave Peach his email address and offered to send him educational material from the class.
At 9:01 p.m. that day, Peach sent an email to Suter that said that while he believed Suter’s dog was a service animal, he does not believe any dogs should be allowed in a restaurant.
Peach goes on to express frustration over the people who falsely claim their dogs are service animals just to get the animals into restaurants. He then offers Suter advice:
“There are ways around your disability such as having one of the people with you steady you as you walk or pick you up should you fall,” the restaurant owner wrote in the email, which Suter shared with The Durango Herald. “... You claimed this dog was your wheelchair then maybe you should get a wheelchair for restaurant purposes???”
On Thursday, after this story’s publication on durangoherald.com, Peach called the Herald and said he regretted the language he used in the Facebook post and email, and that he has since done research about service dogs and their benefit to people with disabilities.
Peach said he has had to deal all summer with people who lie about having service dogs, and it came to a head with Suter, who Peach said was instantly combative when a waitress asked him about the dog.
“All I’m concerned about is dogs in my dining room,” he said. “It’s a tiny space and that was my whole problem.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act became a federal law in 1990 to prohibit the discrimination of people with disabilities in all areas of public life, such as jobs, and all public and private places open to the public.
The act protects the use of service animals (only dogs and miniature horses) for people who need help with tasks, such as walking, picking up items or other actions associated with a disability.
There is a distinct difference between a service animal, which is trained to perform a specific task, and what are known as emotional support animals, which are not protected by the ADA.
However, regulation of service animals has vexed some restaurant owners, said Jason Ragsdell of the Southwest Center for Independence, which provides support to people with disabilities.
The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, have an identification tag, have documentation or be certified – a measure supported by disability rights advocates.
“It would add another barrier for people with disabilities,” Ragsdell said.
In situations where it is not clear if a dog is a service animal, business owners or employees can ask only two questions: “Is the dog a service animal because of a disability, and what tasks has the dog been trained to perform?”
If the answers make sense, the animal should be allowed in, said Emily Harvey of Disability Law Colorado, a nonprofit specializing in civil rights and discrimination issues. However, if employees or owners suspect a person is lying, they can ask that the animal remain outside but risk receiving a disabilities complaint if the animal is an actual service dog.
“Given how lenient the law is, it’s in the best interest to allow the animal to come in, and then if it’s out of control, ask it to leave,” said Harvey, adding any animal, service dog or not, can be asked to leave if it is causing a disturbance.
“It gets really confusing,” she said.
While the law is intended for the betterment of people with disabilities, it is easily taken advantage of, Ragsdell said. Websites offer fake credentials for people to buy vests and paperwork that identifies their pet as a service animal.
This became such an issue that in 2016, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a law that made it a crime to misrepresent a pet as a service animal. Violations carry a fine of $350 to $1,000. Second-time offenders can be fined $5,000 and community service.
Dan Bender, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said there have been no citations written for false service dogs. The Durango Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
“It is a little frustrating (for restaurant owners) because of the people who are falsely doing it,” Ragsdell said. “It’s aggravating to the disability community as well.
“I think because it is an honor type of situation, I’d like to see people have a little bit of a conscience.”
Suter said Peach seemed frustrated that people are taking advantage of service animal rules. The Facebook post on Pura Vida’s page expressed this frustration.
“With no way of proving if a dog is a service dog we must let all dogs into our dining room,” the post read. “Then the health dept wants to shut us down.”
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said violations are given to business owners only if non-service animals are found in restaurants. The health department did not issue any violations to Pura Vida this year. Instead, Peach was provided educational material, Jollon said.
Suter, who has family that lives in Bayfield, said he got his service dog four years ago after battling mobility issues. The dog, Lunch, is a 75-pound pointer mix that helps Suter walk and, if he falls down, can support him to get back up.
Suter said he has encountered discrimination for having a service dog in the past. But he felt compelled to act after Peach sent the late-night email to suggest Suter buy a wheelchair instead of use a service dog.
“This is the first complaint I’ve ever filed,” Suter said.
Attempts to reach the Department of Justice were not successful Wednesday.