Is Justice a service dog? Court says no

September 4, 2009 at 1:41 pm Leave a comment

ADA logoA complex can of worms was opened in Wisconsin over a lawsuit filed by a man named Steven Bottila, who has seizures, and his untrained service dog named Justice. At the heart of the matter is whether or not Justice, who learned by his own instinct to alert his owner that a seizure is about to begin, is a service dog who can be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  ADA’s definition of a service animal is:

The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

Once again there’s the critical word: trained. The ADA says that a service dog has to be individually  trained to perform specific tasks for someone’s  specific, i.e., guide dogs are trained to lead the blind, and other dogs are trained to perform such tasks as turning on lights, opening  refrigerator doors, and picking up for folks with limited mobility who are often in wheelchairs.  If the dog is not trained for specific tasks for the specific disability, the dog is not considered a service dog under the ADA.  Justice, a German shepherd mixed breed, effectively alerts Bottila so that he can use a device implanted under his skin, but was not trained by anyone, not even Bottila.

In September 2007 Bottila was refused entrance to a restaurant because of Justice. The following July Bottila filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that the police violated his civil rights under ADA. Other incidents followed until the one in May 2009 that made big news: the police were called to remove Bottila and Justice from a McDonald’s. The police said Bottila was confrontational, and Bottila said he had the right to sit there after he was through eating (he was waiting for a bus). The incident ended with the police using a Taser and pepper spray on Bottila before arresting him. Justice was taken to the local shelter.

Bottila and the Madison police seem to have quite a record of butting heads again and again over the issue of Justice’s public access.

Madison Police Capt. Vic Wahl said Bottila — who has filed a federal lawsuit against the department and discrimination complaints against local businesses — has made a “hobby” of inciting confrontations over the issue and has told officers he sees “it as an opportunity to make a living off of lawsuits against police.” [ …] Yet federal and state laws give people with disabilities wide latitude to take their service dogs into places where animals normally aren’t allowed. And the Madison Police Department has established protocols for dealing with the issue –  created specifically in response to past contacts with Bottila –  although records show officers have dealt with complaints from businesses inconsistently.

Sure, police have been known to lie. And sure, people have been known to lie to police. Who knows what really happened in the Taser incident. Were the police in their rights to subdue him with force? I don’t think so. Has Bottila made a “hobby” of inciting confrontations? It sounds like it to me. (See a Wisconsin State Journal article about the incident as well as Bottila’s comments at this Topix site.) Is he purposely trying to make a living by suing the police? I don’t think so. I think he is genuinely trying to get his civil rights, but I think the way he’s chosen to go about it is a poor choice. He won’t put a vest of any sort on Justice – legally he doesn’t have to, but if I was in his situation and had been tossed out of stores and restaurants on suspicion of using ADA as a scam to keep my dog with me (and I feel very strongly that pretending you have a service dog is wrong), you bet I’d get a vest to try to ease the confusion.

For the trial that had nothing to do with the Taser incident, Bottila was not allowed to bring Justice into the courtroom because the city argued that whether Justice “is a bona fide service animal or merely a pet is a disputed fact in this case.”

Bottila represented himself, which I always think is a big mistake, and lost the suit. He has said he will appeal. This case had such possible impact for disabled people that I wish it had been handled by a lawyer. Bottila cannot afford a lawyer. I hope he can get some help for his appeal.

Gratuitous note: Check out the movie Music Within about the man who was the driving force behind ADA, a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing during combat; his best friend was a man with cerebral palsy, played wonderfully by Michael Sheen; I didn’t realize the character was played by Sheen until the end credits rolled.…

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