ADA Showdown: Dog-Fearing Cabbie vs. Blind Customer
A Connecticut cab driver who was fired after he refused to pick up a blind customer with a service dog is now suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming his own disability – fear of dogs – and saying his employers discriminated against him.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Connecticut on September 11 against the Yellow Cab company and the Connecticut State Department of Transportation by Mansoor Ahmad and his father, another cabbie who was fired after complaining about the treatment of his son, admits Ahmad refused to pick up the passenger from the cab line at Bradley Airport.
A dispatcher yelled at Ahmad, who tried to explain that his phobia prevented him from taking the passenger and his dog, a German Shepherd, but she called him a “bloody Asian,” and forced him to move his cab to the back of the taxi line, according the complaint.
“I suffer from a medical condition called cynophobia. I have an internal fear of dogs,” Ahmad told NBC. He says a two-inch scar on his face was caused by a dog that chased him down when he was nine years old.
It seems clear that under the ADA cabbies cannot refuse to pick up customers with service dogs.
“Under the ADA, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go,” according to a July 2011 US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division notice concerning service animals and the ADA.
“Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals,” the notice specifically points out.
But the case has raised questions about what happens in the case of dueling disabilities: Can an employee be fired for noncompliance with the ADA based on his own disability?
Ahmad first has to show that he in fact has a “disability,” but that shouldn’t be a problem, according to Daniel Schwartz, a lawyer with Pullman & Comley LLC in Hartford, Conn. “Under the ADA, the definition of a disability is much broader than what it was before,” says Schwartz. “Courts rarely get into whether someone has a ‘legitimate’ disability anymore [and instead] look at whether he is substantially limited in a major life activity.”
“Anxiety disorders have typically been seen as being a disability,” he notes.
The case could come down to the “essential function” of Ahmad’s job, because his employer can legally fire him – at least under the ADA – if he can’t perform that function. Schwartz thinks one of the key issues in the case will be “whether following the law regarding public transportation (and not discriminating against blind customers) is an ‘essential’ function of being a cab driver.”
“The company would certainly argue that it is; after all, if you can’t follow the law, how can you get the job done?” he asks. “But the driver may say that other drivers can pick up the customer so how can it be ‘essential’? The driver has a tougher argument here.”
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The case could be important because it presents the rare situation in which two public policies must face off: “The public interest in making sure those who are blind have available transportation appears to be running up against the public interest in making sure those with disabilities are treated fairly in the workplace,” explains Schwartz.
“Which one should prevail here? That may be the question the court ultimately decides which could prove notable for other cases as well,” he says.
Do you think cabbies who legitimately fear dogs should be able to refuse to pick up customers with service dogs? Share your opinion below.