Christy Gardner, who owns Mission Working Dogs in Oxford, and Joshua Gould are among those suing the Maine Mall over an incident in May 2022 when they say mall security kicked them and their service dogs out of the mall, violating state and federal laws and mall policy. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

An organization that trains service dogs to help people with disabilities has filed a lawsuit against the Maine Mall, saying its dogs and their handlers were unlawfully detained and kicked out of the shopping center last May.

Ten people and eight service dogs from Mission Working Dogs of Oxford visited the mall on May 7, 2022, to train. The group walked around the mall for about 45 minutes, until a mall security guard stopped them and said they needed to leave because animals weren’t allowed in the mall, said the organization’s founder, Christy Gardner. They were told if they didn’t leave, they would be charged with trespassing, she said.

On Monday, Gardner’s organization, Gardner and the other nine people who went to the mall sued Brookfield Properties Retail Inc and GGP Maine Mall LLC, the mall’s owners, alleging discrimination, harassment and false imprisonment, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Portland. The complaint states that the mall’s actions violated state and federal law.

Asked by email about the group’s visit, a spokesperson for the Maine Mall said it would not discuss litigation.

Gardner is an Army veteran and double-leg amputee. After her injuries overseas, the service dog she was matched with helped her greatly. She said she founded her organization to help others find the same support.

Mission Working Dogs has placed 15 service dogs with handlers. It has 55 dogs in training, waiting to be matched. Eight or nine dogs train together in a class, and it takes about two years for the dogs to be trained to the organization’s standards, Gardner said.


The group has conducted training in stores before, including in the malls in South Portland and Auburn, according to the complaint. A representative of the Auburn Mall declined to discuss its experience with the group.

Twice before, Gardner had been told by Maine Mall security that animals weren’t allowed or that she needed to schedule an appointment to bring them, the complaint states.

The dogs that were brought to the mall in May 2022 were already trained to perform specific tasks to help a disabled person, which is all that is required under the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) for a dog to be considered a service animal, according to Gardner.

The aim of the visit was to advance the dogs’ skills by having them walk around the mall and provide their handlers with assistance with post-traumatic stress disorder and mobility, the complaint states.

Under the MHRA and state law covering discrimination, service animals are allowed to accompany their handlers in all places of public accommodation and may only be removed from a public space if they are out of control or not housebroken.

A place of public accommodation is “an establishment that is open to the general public; this may be by offering its goods/facilities/services to, or by soliciting/accepting patronage from, the public,” as stated in the MHRA. Under state statute, such places include schools, stores, government buildings, hospitals and restaurants.


The Maine Human Rights Commission issued the group a right-to-sue letter in May, according to the complaint.

The number of dogs in training brought into a public space doesn’t matter under the law, said Eric Dibner, the state’s ADA accessibility coordinator.

“The standard is people are allowed to go where they want to unless they are disruptive,” Dibner said. “If someone’s disruptive, you can ask them to go outside.”

It’s best to train dogs in the sorts of public places where their skills will be needed, because “the dogs do need socialization and might need advanced skills,” Dibner said. 

According to the state law covering discrimination, “a specially trained service dog trainer, while engaged in the actual training process and activities of service dogs, has the same rights, privileges and responsibilities” as someone with a service dog, or any other member of the public.

Gardner was leading the training at the time of the incident, and was one of two people from her organization without a service dog.


The group had been wandering the mall and had done some shopping when one of the handlers, a woman with autism and an intellectual disability, and the behavioral health professional accompanying her were approached and yelled at by a mall security guard, according to the complaint.

The Maine Mall’s policy regarding animals, as stated on its website, is “service animals and service animals-in-training only.”

The guard told the group that animals must be fully trained before coming into the mall. Gardner explained the mall’s stated policy and the law to the guard, who said the mall was private property and could “make their own rules,” the complaint said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals who use service animals from being discriminated against by businesses and local and state government. Under the ADA, there are only two questions someone working at a business or government facility can ask: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

At no point during the incident did anyone ask either of those questions, Gardner said.

“The Maine Mall is failing disabled Mainers, and we hope this lawsuit will shine a light on a long-standing illegal practice and bring about overdue changes that will allow Mainers with service animals to enjoy the same rights as everyone else without fear of being detained, harassed and discriminated against,” the organization’s attorney, Amy Dieterich, said in a statement.


After the guard confronted them, members of the Mission Working Dogs group were detained with the dogs for an hour in a public hallway until South Portland police arrived.

Police officers told the group that the mall is private property and said that if they didn’t leave when asked, it would be considered trespassing, according to a South Portland Police Department activity report from the incident.

One of the people suing the mall, Josh Gould, 42, of New Gloucester, said that day is still fresh in his mind.

“People should not be treated that way regardless of ability or disability. It was absolute public humiliation,” he said.

Gould spent four years in the Marines. His service dog Eleanor helps him with his PTSD and issues with lower extremity mobility. Eleanor will alert Gould if people are approaching him in public, along with other tasks.

“It was an absolute trigger for my PTSD,” he said of the mall experience. “It irks me they think they can blatantly disrespect people’s rights without any discourse.”

Both Gould and Gardner said the lawsuit is about educating people and preventing future harassment.

Gardner said the reception the Maine Mall gave her group is not the norm.

“It’s crappy to be so welcome in the community, but to be treated like criminals.”

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