(These tips are based off of personal experience and observations as an advocate and as the handler of a service dog. In no way should this list/post be used in place of legal advice. If you are seeking legal advice, please consult an attorney.)
On occasion, handlers of service animals may run into an access dispute or access denial to a business or entity, or face discrimination. Here is a list of the do’s and don’ts of access disputes, denials and discrimination; and a list of legal processes one may explore in the event of such an occurrence. This is extremely important information to look into when handling a service animal, as taking the proper course of action is beneficial to both the handler, the business/entity, and future handlers accessing the business/entity.
1. Use a doctor’s note/letter, I.D. card, “papers”, or similar items to gain access. While this may seem easiest in the moment, it is extremely detrimental to the service dog handlers that attempt to rightfully gain access after you. In the US, there are no forms of documentation, I.D. cards, or other items that legally indicate that the handler is disabled, and/or that the animal accompanying them is a service animal- such documentation cannot be required as a condition for entry. This also provides false information to the business/entity, and can condition employees to think that I.D. cards or documentation is required as a condition for entry when they are not. ADA information cards are a fantastic alternative.
2. Post about the incident online. Refrain the urge to post the details. This is especially important and can hurt your case more often than not. It is better to remain silent about the incident until the access dispute is resolved- no matter what course of action you decide to take. In some cases, a business may use what you post against you, and can sometimes counter-claim with defamation or libel of their business- something you absolutely do not want.
3. Review, boycott, or retaliate against a business- especially if you were not physically present during an access dispute. If you were a witness, write down what you saw and keep it in a safe place. This may count as a witness statement and may be used as evidence- it should NOT make it to the eyes of the public.
4. Go on a “manhunt”. It is much to your benefit that you remain calm about the event, even if it is difficult to do so.
5. Automatically assume that discrimination or an access denial occurred. Sometimes handlers are asked by a business/entity to remove their service animal from the premises with just cause- it is very important to make sure you are viewing both sides of the story from a neutral standpoint. Ask yourself if you have all the facts. Was the handler’s dog under control? Was the handler behaving appropriately? Is the dog a service dog? Is the handler disabled? Were local and federal laws being followed? Was the business within their rights to ask that the animal be removed? Unless you were physically present, chances are that you may not be able to answer these questions without more information, if at all.
1. Know your rights and the rights of the business. Always make sure you are up to date on local laws, as well as federal laws. Determine if you were legally denied access/ discriminated against or not.
2. Document as much as possible. Write down the date, time, name of the entity, place/location, and names of those involved; including witnesses (get contact info if you need to). Take screenshots (if necessary- especially in the event of a business/entity posting about the incident on their business page or website), recover and/or record audio and/or video if applicable (ONLY if the state the incident occurred in allows single party consent- if the state requires two party consent for video or audio recording, permission from the person you will be recording is required- ALWAYS check laws before recording audio and/or video of someone. Sometimes a warrant may need to be issued in order to recover CCTV or other recordings).
*Tip: Write down or record your recount of the situation as soon as possible- you want to include as many details as possible, and while the incident is fresh in your mind.
3. Try to educate. Bring ADA information cards, provide the ADA Information Hotline number, give links or copies of the ADA.gov web pages that pertain to service animals, and provide copies of federal and local laws if applicable. Mailing or faxing these items can also be beneficial if you are uncomfortable doing so face-to-face.
4. Speak to management. Try going up the hierarchy ladder of the business before taking legal action. Talk to a manager, owner, or corporate first to see if the problem can be resolved.
5. Be realistic, and decide which battles are worth fighting. If the access dispute was simply due to lack of education and was not hostile, educate if possible. If the access dispute resulted in verbal hostility or a physical altercation, alert management/the business owner/corporate first, then explore legal avenues. If no real action needs to be taken, consider not visiting the business/entity again in the future after attempting to educate; sometimes letting it go may be better for your own health and mental wellbeing.
6. Remain calm, and keep things private. Often times we want to share our negative experiences with the world (especially on public online platforms), but this can be more hurtful to you than it can be helpful.
7. IF needed, go to a mental health professional, a medical professional, a canine behaviorist, or veterinarian. Sometimes access disputes, denials or discrimination can cause emotional and/or physical distress for you and/or your dog, so it is important to be evaluated or treated if you think this may apply to you and/or your dog. Always keep documentation of any bills, chart notes or letters to use in your case.
8. Explore legal avenues.
Sometimes, access disputes cannot be solved within a personal capacity, so legal action may need to be taken. There are typically 4 legal routes that may be explored:
1. An Advocate
Often times advocates do not need to take legal action, but they will help educate a business on the laws, provide resources to both the business and the handler, and can direct a handler to the proper attorney or avenue of legal action if it needs to be taken. Advocates can often build the start of a case for a handler against a business if legal action needs to be taken. On occasion, advocates may have law degrees depending on their educational background- most often, they are volunteers that have been trained to handle access issues, or are persons that have researched laws extensively in their personal time.
2. A State Human Rights Commission (or similar entity)
A State Human Rights Commission (HRC) typically provides businesses with education in the event of discrimination. In most cases, denying a service dog handler access because of their service dog is considered discrimination. This process is typically started in the form of filing a formal complaint with the HRC or similar entity. You may choose to file a claim and go through the process alone, or you can hire an attorney to assist you. In some events, an investigator with the HRC will act as a neutral party and interview both sides and witnesses to determine if discrimination occurred. If discrimination did occur, there will be a ruling that may act as a legally binding agreement or action. This may be anything from mandatory signage and education, to possible fines to the business. Occasionally, the person filing the complaint may seek monetary compensation for medical bills, training bills, or therapy needed as a result of the access denial. This route often takes less time to complete than filing a complaint with The Department of Justice or via an individual lawsuit, but often have a cap on the dollar amount of monetary damages being sought after, or may not allow monetary damages at all- it all depends on the individual organization handling the case.
3. The Department of Justice
If you feel you have a very strong case, wish to seek larger monetary damages, or have the patience to wait a few years for a case to develop, filing a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ) is an option. It is suggested to have an attorney through this process. These cases are typically on a larger scale (large businesses/entities/corporations/schools), have had extreme financial or psychological distress, verbal exchanges, or physical altercations occur during the access dispute, and are often extremely strong cases. The DOJ doesn’t like to have their time wasted, and these cases sometimes end up in federal court. It is very important to consult with an attorney to see if your case is worth pursuing on this level before filing a complaint. The DOJ receives hundreds of complaints a month for all kinds of discrimination, so it is a lengthy process, but can be worth the resolution in the end.
4. Hire an Attorney
Sometimes, persons may want to pursue an access dispute on a personal lawsuit basis. These kinds of lawsuits can range from small claims court, to district or even superior court. Personal lawsuits are usually cases where the plaintiff is seeking monetary damages and stricter penalties. Resolution on personal lawsuits can take time, and can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees- so it’s best to try to bring a strong case to a pro-bono lawyer, or one who will work on a contingency fee. Always explore and consult with different attorneys/lawyers to find one that works for you and your budget.
Although access disputes, denials and discrimination can be daunting, the hope is that this list provides information to those who have encountered such incidents, and gives confidence to handlers on how to handle them appropriately. The main things to keep in mind are to keep access disputes and details private, determine the best course of action for you, and ensuring both you and your service animal are physically and psychologically okay after an incident.
Regional ADA Centers Directory:
Finding a Disability/Civil Rights Lawyer:
ADA Information and Information Hotline Number: