LANCASTER – The AV Times was asked to look into a recent incident involving a local disabled veteran who said he was forced to leave a restaurant after the owner refused to accept the man’s dog as a service animal.
Robert Leahy of Palmdale, a U.S. Army veteran who says he lost his leg in a service-related accident, claims the owner of Louis’ Burgers on 10th Street W. in Lancaster demanded paperwork to prove his dog was a service animal.
The restaurant owner, Louis Zaharopoulos, said he does not believe the dog is a service animal – it’s a liability to his business and customers.
The incident grew beyond a disagreement between the two men once Leahy shared the story on social media this week.
San Fernando Valley resident Carol Stephens contacted the restaurant to check out the story for herself after reading Leahy’s post in the Facebook group, Growing Up In AV 60s 70s 80s.
“I have a service dog myself and have run into some problems in the past,” Stephens said. “He didn’t seem to know what to do, and I’m a doer – so I did.”
Stephens said she spoke to a woman who identified herself as a manager of Louis’ Burgers and was told that Leahy was denied service because of “health department rules that demand and require to see documentation” for a service dog.
But Stephens disagreed with the Louis’ Burgers manager, saying the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents businesses from seeking any documentation to prove that a dog is a service animal.
According to ADA requirements on service animals, only limited inquiries by businesses are allowed when it is not obvious what service an animal provides a person. Specifically, the law does not allow a business to “require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”
The ADA also states that establishments selling or preparing food “must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.”
Stephens provided her own explanation to why documentation is not required, saying “there is no Federal standard for guidelines at this time, and what I’ve been told is that they just don’t have formal rules for this yet. That’s why it’s not needed.”
Leahy said his dog, Sadie, has been trained to help him up and down the stairs. Sadie is equipped with a full harness and leader, helping to stabilize his walk, while also serving as a break when he is unable to stop on downhill momentum, he said.
“She fits the qualifications of such an animal to the letter,” Leahy said. “She is often mistaken for a pit bull when in fact she’s an American Staffordshire Terrier, a totally different dog.”
Zaharopoulos does not see the difference.
“No, no, this is a big lie. The dog is a pit bull,” the restaurant owner said. “He has a pit bull and he wants me to allow his pit bull in the restaurant. The only dogs allowed by the health department to come into the restaurant are service dogs. I don’t make the laws.”
Zaharopoulos stands by his belief that documentation is required by law to prove that a dog is being used as a service animal. He explained that the dog must “have a special harness and also (owners) have paperwork so they can show it to everyone. Then you can tell if it’s a service dog or not. And by law I’m not allowed to have (non-service) dogs in this restaurant.”
The business owner said he knows of 10 different customers who use service dogs on a regular basis at his restaurant, but he stands firm on where to draw the line: “I’m not going to allow a pit bull – that’s a big liability for me, and I cannot do it by law.”
Still, Leahy denies that Sadie is a pit bull and believes that the law supports his right to use her as a service animal. “But he wouldn’t hear me,” Leahy said. “He just flung the door open for us and told us to get out.”
The restaurant owner explained he was well within his rights. “You have to be in the restaurant business to understand what I’m talking about,” Zaharopoulos said. “If the health department says I cannot do this, then I cannot do this.”