A serious moment: What to do when you’ve been discriminated against on the basis of disability in California (service dog included) 

We’ve talked about how to defend your right to be where you are with a service dog in Coping with Rejection (a play in 3 acts), but in the immortal words of the Rolling Stones: you can’t always get what you want. 

No matter how darn cute you are

Occasionally, you and your service dog are going to be shown the door in no uncertain terms.  You’re welcome to choose to accept this treatment, or, you can fight back for yourself and every other service dog team who might darken the doorstep of that business.  It’s a personal decision, and one we Puppity Mamas believe each individual should make for themselves. 

If you’re like us and refuse to take the violation of your rights lying down, read on for the nitty gritty of navigating the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and what to expect based on our current experience. (Plus a little more about Federal enforcement).  

While the ADA is pretty comprehensive, states have the right to add protections or strengthen existing protections given by federal law (but they can never reduce protections mandated by federal law).  FEHA, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, is the California regulation that lays out the rules and processes for enforcing the rights of individuals in protected categories from discrimination (disability, race, gender, religion, gender expression, relationship status, etc.)   In general, FEHA mandates more thorough and stronger protections, as well as lower thresholds to trigger those protections. 

What does that mean for you?  If you’re in California and someone from another state has told you that you’re not protected, take it with a grain of salt and consult DFEH.

Filing a complaint with DFEH is reasonably fast and easy through their online form.  You’ll be asked to set up an account for Houdini, the interactive form service they use, verify your account with your email, and answer a brief yes/no questionnaire to determine whether your case falls under FEHA.  You can also call for an intake appointment, but that appointment is going to be months away. We opted for online intake.
It’s best to do this right away, because the bulk of your form-filling time will be describing the event that happened to you and any participants involved.  It’s easiest to do right after something has happened while your memory is fresh. 

As we found out later, it’s also a very good idea to get, at the very least, a photo of the person or people involved who threw you out.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Just remember that you’re allowed to take a photo of a person in a public place, nobody can take your phone or make you delete the photo without a warrant, and if they ask why you’re taking the photo, you don’t have to answer (though we usually say, simply, to remember who you are.) 

So, you’ve filled out the form, detailed your woeful tale of discrimination, and hit the submit button.  Now what? 

You wait.  

And you keep waiting.  DFEH can be fairly backed up, but they do get to each case. For a case submitted at the end of July, we received a phone call at the end of November, right around the intake appointment we were initially offered on the phone.   So be patient, keep your notes and photos, and remember to check your voice mail. 

When you speak with the DFEH rep, they’ll ask you what happened and if you have any names or photos you can submit. You’ll be asked to give more details in the interview, so keep notes of anything you remember later. 

The interview helps DFEH determine whether the law was broken and remember that in FEHA, the law is broken even if you’re interfered with, not only if you’re actually banned from the premises.  Disabled people and their service dogs in California are entitled to the same ease of access, too.  That means not spending fifteen minutes being harassed in public before being grudgingly allowed to go about your business.  

Once the interviewer determines that your situation falls into their jurisdiction, the case is assigned to an investigator.  

Often, just being investigated by a government agency is enough to make a store change its ways and make sure that all of its employees are properly trained in service dog laws.  Once you’ve gotten this far, your work here is usually done.  

The total time out of your life for getting to this point is less than an hour.  It’s worth an hour to improve access for yourself and others with service dogs, right? 

We think so.  

Since this is the first time we’ve personally had to deal with DFEH in regards to service dog access, we’ll update as the process goes on.  Hopefully this is the end of it, and we’ll just receive notice that the store has trained all of its employees, maybe even issued a little apology.  

Stay tuned for what happens next.  

Oh, hey.  

You’re still here? 

Ah, right.  We promised to address the federal part. 

Well, there’s not a whole lot to say there.  You go to ADA.gov and fill out a form, just like you do on DFEH.  ADA enforcement is a better bet if you were actually thrown out, are part of a group experiencing the same discrimination or harassment, were totally denied service, fired, laid off, etc.  They respond fast, though, even if it’s to tell you that your experience is something they’re not going to follow up on.  

We received a letter of reply in about two or three weeks letting us know that they wouldn’t be able to investigate, but that we retained the right to sue. 

Unfortunately, in some states, that may be your only recourse. 

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