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 guide 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 quietly 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 because 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 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.

Aiello quoted from sections of the Maine Human Rights Act, which says it is unlawful “for any public accommodation … to … discriminate against an individual with a physical or mental disability who uses a service animal at the public accommodation.”

 

 

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com