AUGUSTA, Maine — A blind Presque Isle man has reasonable grounds to argue that he was discriminated against at the Great Wall Buffet in Augusta when he brought his seeing-eye golden retriever Flash into the restaurant with him, according to a Maine Human Rights Commission investigator.
The rights panel will meet on Monday, Feb. 25, to rule on that case and several others, including one involving a Bucksport man who believes he was wrongly fired from his forklift operator job in Bangor because of his asthma.
According to the report from investigator Michele Dion in the first case, Bruce Archer works as a rehabilitation counselor for the Maine Department of Labor, and came to Augusta for a work-related conference in November 2010. He went to the Chinese restaurant for dinner afterward with his personal assistant and Flash, and said that staff seated the party in a separate, isolated area because of the dog.
“I told the male staff person that Flash is a seeing-eye dog and is allowed to go anywhere I go,” Archer told the investigator, adding that his personal assistant told the man it was a federal law. “He disregarded this and kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’”
The staffer followed Archer, Flash and the personal assistant to the buffet tables, and had a woman with an industrial bucket on wheels mop up “right behind” the group.
“I was embarrassed and humiliated to be treated in this manner,” Archer said.
Officials from the Great Wall Buffet acknowledged many of the facts that Archer alleges, but “strongly denied” that the restaurant staff discriminated against him, according to the report. They told the investigator that the hostess asked Archer if he would mind being seated in a less crowded section of the restaurant, a claim which Archer and his assistant both said was false. The restaurant’s owner said that since the incident, people with service animals have been allowed to sit wherever they want.
Dion concluded that Archer was discriminated against based upon disability in a place of public accommodation.
In the case involving the Bucksport man, investigator Robert Beauchesne concluded that William Brzozowski was subjected to unlawful discrimination and retaliation by the Galt Block Warehouse Company of Bangor due to disability when he was terminated from his employment as a forklift operator.
Brzozowski, who was hired through a staffing service, at times had trouble at work due to asthma, and on one occasion he told his manager that working with diluted bleach had made him sick.
“We should not have put you in that predicament knowing that you had asthma,” Brzozowski told the investigator his manager said to him in August 2009. “If you put yourself in that predicament again, we will fire you.”
A year later, he was admitted to the hospital for treatment of his asthma. When he returned to work a couple days later, the manager told him he needed to find another job, according to the report. Brzozowski was terminated from the warehouse on Nov. 30, 2010, and told that it was because of his job performance.
He also alleged that the company subjected him to retaliation, including hostile treatment, after he requested a “reasonable accommodation” for his asthma, according to the report.
In its response to the complaint, the company denied that it discriminated against him because of his health but instead alleged that Brzozowski’s job performance was “subpar,” that he had poor listening skills, and that he constantly used the company phone. Officials there also did not agree that the manager had made the comments that Brzozowski said she did. Additionally, Galt Block said that he never told his supervisor that he had asthma and that he never brought in a doctor’s note indicating that he needed accommodation. The company also denied that it subjected him to retaliation.
But the investigator believed otherwise.
“What is evident in Galt Block and [Project Staffing Inc.] records is Galt Block’s alarm at accommodating complainant’s breathing issues,” he wrote in his analysis of the case.
In Sept. 2010, the 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.
The account manager at the staffing firm replied that it was “a tough call when it is a health issue, isn’t it? You can’t really tell someone that you don’t want them to show up to work or that you don’t want them there because of a health issue.”
The investigator concluded that Brzozowski had “met his burden” to show that Galt Block discriminated against him in terminating his employment based on his disability, but that he did not show that Project Staffing, Inc., also had discriminated against him.
If the commission agrees and finds reasonable grounds on the part of either complainant, the commission then offers mediation to resolve the dispute. If the dispute is not settled, the complainant can then sue in Superior Court.