AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Human Rights Commission has ruled against a Dennysville man who claimed his rights were violated when a Machias restaurant manager asked to see proof that his pit bull was a service animal.
Kenneth Stanhope suffers from several mental and physical disabilities, for which he is accompanied by a pit bull, Sneg. Stanhope claimed that on Aug. 27, 2013, he went to Helen’s Restaurant in Machias and was asked by the restaurant’s owner to prove that Sneg was a service animal.
At question was whether Helen’s had asked questions of Stanhope that violated the Human Rights Act, which states that the only permissible questions to ask of a person who presents with a service animal are whether the animal is required because of a disability, and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.
Stanhope alleged that Helen’s manager had asked to see documentary proof that his pit bull, Sneg, was in fact a service animal, which an HRC investigator, Michele Dion, said was not allowed by the law.
In its response, Helen’s Restaurant did not deny that documentation was requested, but said that Sneg had growled menacingly at one of the restaurant’s employees in the past, prompting the owner, who was not named in the investigator’s report, to question Stanhope. After Stanhope left the restaurant in frustration, the owner researched the state’s law and called Stanhope to apologize for asking for documentation.
In her report, Dion found there was reasonable grounds to believe Helen’s had discriminated against Stanhope, and asked the commission to accept her findings.
Despite agreeing that the letter of the Human Rights Act had been violated by the restaurant manager asking for documentation, three of the five commissioners ruled that no reasonable grounds exist to believe Stanhope was a victim of discrimination, thanks to concerns about the underlying policy of the law.
John Topchik, an attorney for Helen’s, argued that Stanhope’s dogs had a history of aggression, and questioned the validity of Stanhope’s claim to discrimination, as well as Sneg’s credentials as a service animal. An HRC investigator said Monday that that Stanhope and Sneg had taken service animal training prior to the incident at Helen’s.
“He’s filed something like 14 complaints with the HRC, all similar to the facts presented in this case,” Topchik said. “Mr. Stanhope’s service animals are anything but. We’re not talking about the case of a little old lady trying to get a Pekingese on the plane. We’re talking about 90-pound pit bulls … that have an extensive history, well documented by the commission, in Alaska and Maine for not only attacking other animals, but people.”
Two commissioners — Sallie Chandler and Deborah Whitworth — voted to accept the investigator’s report finding reasonable grounds for a discrimination charge. Chandler said that despite concerns about the underlying policy, the law was clear.
“It’s the law,” she said. “The law says they can ask two questions. They did not ask those two questions. Therefore, it’s discrimination.”
Despite advice by the HRC’s executive director and attorney that the role of the commission was to enforce the letter of the Human Rights Act, not debate the policy established by the law, three commissioners said they could not find reasonable grounds for discrimination — in part because they felt concern about Stanhope’s dogs were widely known in Machias, and that Helen’s manager’s behavior was reasonable in that context.
“An issue that I consider in these types of cases is that, here, in this country, there are First Amendment protections,” said commission Chairman Arnold Clark. “That includes asking questions. I just think that if this were challenged in litigation, a court would say that this regulation is too restrictive on a person’s First Amendment right. That’s why I’m voting against the motion.”
Stanhope was not present at Monday’s hearing.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.