The Maine Human Rights Commission has found Uber discriminated against a blind Falmouth woman when one of its drivers refused her a ride because she was accompanied by her guide dog.

Members of the commission voted Monday that there were “reasonable grounds” that the ride-sharing company discriminated against Patricia Sarchi on the basis of her disability.

Sarchi had an Uber ride called for her by a Portland manicurist after an appointment in January 2017, according to a September report from a commission investigator.

When the car arrived, the driver told Sarchi she could not get in because she had her guide dog, a standard poodle named Jeff. The driver would not give Sarchi a ride even after the manicurist explained he could not refuse her because the dog was Sarchi’s service animal.

“It doesn’t make you feel too good,” Sarchi, 71, said in an interview. “I felt kind of intimidated, disappointed that people are doing these services and are not accepting of everyone.”

Sarchi was later charged $5 by Uber as a canceled ride fee. She hasn’t taken an Uber in Maine since the incident because she’s worried about getting turned down again.

“I’d like to see things go right with Uber so I can be free to call them and use their services,” she said.

Under Maine’s Human Rights Act, people with service animals must be allowed in places of public accommodation where other members of the public are allowed.

In response to the complaint, Uber said it could not be held responsible, arguing that because its ride-hailing service provides no physical space, it can’t be considered public accommodation – anything that offers goods, facilities and services to the general public.

The company also argued that it was not liable for the actions of its drivers because they are independent contractors, not employees.

A commission investigator dismissed both of Uber’s claims. Under a ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, companies don’t need a physical space to be defined as public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the investigator’s report said.

Although Uber drivers are contractors, the company “exercises extensive control” over drivers, including performance and behavior requirements, background checks, and standards for vehicle age and quality, the investigator said. Under Maine law, Uber’s control over drivers meets the requirement for an employer/employee relationship, the report concludes.

“Clearly, drivers are not the ‘third-party independent transportation providers’ Uber claims in its submissions,” the investigator states in the report.

“They may have control over how many hours they work and what rides they accept (to an extent; Uber can remove a driver with a high cancellation rate), but Uber controls nearly everything else about how the rides are provided.”

Uber spokesman Navideh Forghani said in an email that the company could not comment on pending litigation. Its policies prohibit drivers from discriminating against riders with disabilities and the company may block drivers from its app if it determines they violated the law.

Drivers also have to agree to transport service animals and operate in compliance with accessibility laws when they agree to work for Uber, Forghani said.

The company  posted a $1.2 billion loss in its third-quarter report, despite ride-sharing revenue of $3.8 billion.

RIDE-SHARING CONFLICTS

In recent years the ride-hailing company has faced a raft of lawsuits concerning poor accommodation for people with disabilities. Civil rights lawyers have challenged the company for not providing adequate services for people in wheelchairs in California, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.

This isn’t the first time Uber has been challenged for refusing rides to those with service animals. The company and the National Federation of the Blind agreed to a 2016 settlement that required Uber to publish a new service animal policy and made drivers approve an in-app notification that acknowledges their contractual and legal obligations.

Uber also agreed to pay the federation $225,000 and allow the nonprofit to test its compliance.

The company has aggressively fought legal challenges, said Melissa Riess, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, a firm in New York and California that brought the service animal suit and others against Uber. The company has tried to bring the cases into arbitration, instead of having them heard in court, Riess said.

Despite the 2016 settlement, there are still examples of people with service animals like Sarchi being denied rides from Uber, Riess said.

There has been no single ruling that ride-sharing companies are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it is likely they would be covered if a case can proceed to where that decision will be made, she added.

“They have enormous valuations; the idea that they can’t make their transportation services inclusive for everyone is hard to believe,” Riess said.

Kristin Aiello, the managing attorney at Disability Rights of Maine, represented Sarchi and said it is concerning that Uber continues to insist it is not subject to state and federal laws.

“We are very disappointed that despite the settlement agreement in place, there continue to be violations by Uber,” Aiello said in an interview. “What is even more concerning is Uber is doubling down and literally saying the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Maine Human Rights Act does not apply to us.”

This is the first time the Maine Human Rights Commission has ruled in a case involving a ride-sharing company. Uber started offering rides around Portland in 2014 and rival service Lyft started in the region two years later.

The commission has 90 days to negotiate conciliation between itself, Sarchi and the company, commission Executive Director Amy Sneirson said.

If no resolution is reached, the commission and Sarchi have another 90 days to sue Uber in court, Sneirson said.

The case is noteworthy because courts across the country are being asked if companies that provide services in the sharing economy, like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, can be held responsible for what the people who use those services do, Sneirson said.

“It is being litigated now all around the country, with different results,” she said.

This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 21 to correct the spelling of Melissa Riess’ name.


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