AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Human Rights Commission found on Monday that the ride-sharing company Uber discriminated against a blind woman when a driver refused to give her a ride because her service dog was with her.
Commission investigator Kit Crossman found there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Patricia Sarchi of Falmouth was discriminated against by Uber, according to a September report. Three commissioners agreed in a Monday vote that appeared to be the first case of its kind in Maine against a ride-sharing company.
Sarchi said she had an Uber ride requested for her and her service dog, a standard poodle named Jeffrey, on Jan. 5, 2017 after a manicure in Portland. The driver refused to give Sarchi a ride after seeing her service animal, saying “no dogs” when the vehicle’s door was opened.
The driver then left and the company later charged Sarchi a $5 cancellation fee for the ride, Sarchi said. She said she took a taxi to get home.
“It kind of hurt,” Sarchi said in an interview. “You just don’t expect people to do things like that.”
Uber, which users access by using a phone app to schedule rides, argued in response to the complaint that it is not a “place of public accommodation” under the Maine Human Rights Act. It also argued the company is not responsible for the driver’s conduct because the driver was an independent contractor.
Crossman disagreed, saying Maine’s definition of a place of public accommodation as one that offers goods, facilities or services to “the general public” applies to Uber. Crossman also disagreed that Uber’s drivers are not employees, as the company sets standards and collects ride fares through Raiser LLC, a subsidiary.
Uber’s arguments largely mirror those they have made in similar federal and state proceedings. A June class-action lawsuit filed in a federal court in Pennsylvania alleged that the company discriminates against wheelchair users. Lyft, a rival company, responded to a similar lawsuit in New York earlier this by arguing “it is not in the transportation business,” according to Politico.
Kristin Aiello, the attorney with Disability Rights Maine who represented Sarchi, said people with disabilities face accessibility barriers “far too often” because companies refuse to follow the law. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing case.
“Rather than take responsibility for its actions, Uber has doubled down and denies that it is subject to the law at all,” Aiello said in an email. “Other businesses in the transportation sector cannot simply ignore the ADA, and nor can Uber.”
Sarchi said she was pleased with the commission’s decision and hopes it will prevent other people with disabilities from experiencing the discrimination.
“I’m opening doors for other people,” she said. “I hope it means we’re making progress.”