A human rights panel voted 5-0 Monday to find reasonable grounds that the Great Wall Buffet in Augusta discriminated against a Presque Isle man who was seated apart from the rest of the diners when his Seeing Eye dog accompanied him at the restaurant two years ago.
Bruce Archer, who is blind, had complained to the Maine Human Rights Commission that along with the separate seating, “each time I went up to the buffet and everywhere I walked, there was a woman with a bucket on wheels following right behind me, mopping,” according to a report by commission investigator Michele Dion.
“I was embarrassed and humiliated to be treated in this way,” Archer told the investigator about his experience, which occurred Nov. 16, 2010.
The ruling by the human rights panel is not law but may become grounds for lawsuits.
Outside the hearing room, Archer said that one result of the commission recommendation in his favor would be “more of an education” for the public.
“The owners of restaurants need to be trained and need to provide training for their workers about service animals and Seeing Eye dogs in particular,” he said.
During the hearing and afterward, Flash, a 9-year-old golden retriever wearing a harness, remained quiet at Archer’s side or at his feet. The guide dog is among those trained by Seeing Eye Inc. of Morristown, N.J.
Archer was also accompanied by Julie Michaud, the personal assistant who also had been with him at the Great Wall Buffet.
Dion recommended a finding of reasonable grounds to believe that Archer was discriminated against on the basis of his disability at the 1 Anthony Ave. restaurant.
John Topchik, an attorney representing the restaurant owner, Judy Li, said that there was no intent to discriminate against Archer and that restaurant staff followed instructions Li previously received from a representative of the Maine Department of Health after some diners complained two years previously about an animal being present.
Topchik said things have changed already at the restaurant as a result of Archer’s complaint.
“Right now her policy is people with Seeing Eye dogs and service animals can sit anywhere they want,” Topchik told commissioners Monday. “She has done and will do whatever she can to solve this.”
Topchik told commissioners that many restaurant staffers who were there at the time Archer was dining there are no longer employed at the restaurant and that “much of this was exacerbated by language barrier.”
Topchik said the separate seating and the mopping behind the animal “was a good faith effort to alleviate concerns other people might have after seeing an animal in such close proximity to food.”
He added, “The discriminatory action, if any, in this case was directed at an animal. The dog isn’t protected. Mr. Archer is.”
Kristin Aiello, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center in Augusta who represented Archer at the hearing, said her client carries cards with him explaining that his dog is a service animal and needs to accompany him.
“Rather than being welcomed, he was treated almost as if he were a pariah,” Aiello said.
Aiello quoted from sections of the Maine Human Rights Act, which says it is unlawful “for any public accommodation or any person who is the owner, lessor, lessee, proprietor, operator, manager, superintendent, agent or employee of any place of public accommodation to refuse to permit the use of a service animal or otherwise discriminate against an individual with a physical or mental disability who uses a service animal at the public accommodation.”
The only exception is if “it is shown by defense that the service animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or would substantially interfere with the reasonable enjoyment of the public accommodation by others.”
Maine law states that it’s unlawful to bring an animal into a business where food is sold or prepared, but it doesn’t apply “to a person requiring the services of a service animal.”
A ban on live animals in food establishments in the Maine Food Code permits an exception in areas “that are not used for food preparation and that are usually open for customers, such as dining and sales areas, service animals that are controlled by the disabled employee or person, if a health or safety hazard will not result from the presence or activities of the service animal.”
Li, who was at Monday’s public hearing at the Maine Human Rights Commission offices, afterward referred questions to Topchik, who said he had no comment.
Archer said he has eaten in a number of other restaurants and “I never had any problems before.”
Aiello said the commission will work with both parties to try to resolve the matter.
Betty Adams — 621-5631