(LEX 18) — It's a confrontation Suzanna Benassi never expected.
"I felt like I wasn't being listened to," she said. "That my need for him didn't really matter. That is wasn't important."
On May 7th, 2020, she says she was discriminated against at Jim's Seafood in Frankfort.
She was there with her husband and service dog, Dobby, for dinner when she said she was asked to move tables after she had been served food.
"I'll have a server come collect your food, and we'll go in this other room," said a voice on a video she recorded.
You can also hear someone explain that Dobby is too close to the kitchen and that it's a violation of local health department rules. Benassi responded by saying that asking her to move is a violation of her rights under the American with Disabilities Act, and so is asking for paperwork for a service dog.
"Do you have paperwork and all of that?" questioned the same voice on the video recording.
"I was stressed, but I was just trying to make sure that I remained calm because I really didn't want to escalate the situation," she said. "I wanted to be able to tell her what the law was and then hopefully be able to continue with our meal because I do have issues occasionally with people not knowing the law."
The law, according to ada.gov, says people with disabilities can go into businesses that serve the public with a service dog. Benassi says this law couldn't be more important to her.
That's because she has a functional neurological disorder. In a nutshell, she says her brain doesn't communicate well with her body when under stress.
"You can have any kinds of symptoms," Benassi said. "Some of my most common ones are dizziness, trouble hearing, trouble seeing, paralysis, temporary paralysis."
Diagnosed in 2012, it ruled her life for years. Then, she got Dobby four years ago to help her manage the disorder.
"My mom doesn't worry about me as much," she said. "My husband, too. I have a lot more independence."
Dobby keeps her calm to prevent episodes from happening.
"If I'm having a bad week, I might have a couple in a week, but it used to be I'd have 10 in a day," she said.
Dobby also helps her if one comes on.
"He actually caught me from falling on concrete one time," she recalled. "He got my head."
She said she can't live without him, so that's why they were together at Jim's Seafood that day when she refused to move tables.
When asked why she didn't agree to move tables, she said, "It makes you feel like you're not as important as other people, it really does."
Eventually, Benassi gets up to leave when you can hear someone explain further why she was asked to move.
"If they have a dog allergy, they don't want to be walking by your dog," said the voice on the recording.
After the incident, Benassi hired a lawyer who says the law is on their side.
"She's allowed to be there," Erin Smallwood said. "We have the ADA for a reason, and this is a prime example of that."
We also asked an independent legal expert about what the ADA says.
Professor Laura Rothstein at the University of Louisville has been teaching and writing about disability discrimination law for about 40 years.
She said under the ADA, some regulations spell out what is allowed.
They say a service animal, usually a dog, must be trained to do work or perform a task for a person with a disability. She added that they don't need to be formally trained or have documentation.
She said they are allowed in public accommodations like restaurants, bars, hotels, and theatres with some caveats.
"The person bringing that dog has to have that dog under control," Rothstein said. "The dog can't be loud, disruptive, or biting. It can't be an obstruction."
As for allergies, ada.gov says, "allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service."
In terms of asking someone to move because of allergies, Rothstein said the business and person with a service dog should work together on a solution.
"I would say it should be negotiated kind of on a commonsense basis," she said. "I would just say that's not going to come up that often but it is a legitimate concern."
She also said there are only two questions a business can ask.
- "Do you have a disability for which the dog provides a service?"
- If the person says yes, you can then ask, "what task is it trained to perform?"
Beyond that, no other questions can be asked. She also said people with disabilities cannot be asked to move away from others unless there is a legitimate concern about danger or disruption or other harm.
"They're not supposed to be separated from everyone else unless there's some compelling reason," she said. "Unless there's some safety reason to do that."
She did not want to comment specifically on Benassi's case, but in the video Benassi recorded, the restaurant raised questions of safety, having Dobby too close to the kitchen.
Therefore, LEX 18 asked the Franklin County Health Department whether that was a violation. In an email, the Public Health Director wrote:
"Our understanding of ADA is that the only exception to a service animal being at a particular seat (whether or not near the kitchen) is if the animal creates a hazard by impeding a walkway for other customers or staff. Service animals are also not allowed on tables or in chairs at restaurants."
Benassi said Dobby was not in a walkway or on a table or chair.
LEX 18 went to Jim's Seafood to get their perspective on what happened. The manager told us to contact their lawyer, who told us no comment.
Benassi and her lawyer are discussing how they would like to move forward.
Smallwood said they are trying to come to an amicable solution, but all signs as of right now, point to filing a lawsuit.
In the meantime, Benassi wants to spread awareness about this issue.
"I don't want this to happen to anybody else, Benassi said. "I want people to be able to go and enjoy a dinner and feel just as important as able-bodied people."
According to the Kentucky Protection and Advocacy Division, which is an independent state agency, overall awareness about disability discrimination law is needed since similar situations are relatively common.
As of June 2021, they reported that over the past eight months, they've represented 215 people in disability discrimination cases. One involved a service dog, and they offered legal advice to three others involving service dogs.
Then, in July 2021, they reported over the past ten months, the case number went up to 369.
They also said to keep in mind that these are only the cases that they take on and that there are likely many more instances of possible discrimination, including those that go unreported.