JEFFERSON CITY - Patrick Wissinger said his service dog, Kurban, was wearing a red and black tag on his leash with the words "service dog" prominently displayed when the two walked into Menards in Jefferson City on August 7. Wissinger said he felt humiliated when a store manager asked him to leave with the dog. "He kept making a stink about it. He stalked us around the store, which just had me on edge the whole time," Wissinger said. He also said the manager's actions distracted Kurban. "He was too busy keeping an eye out," Wissinger said.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employees are only allowed to ask the following two questions when a guest brings a dog into the store:
1) Is the dog a service dog required because of a disability?
2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
The act states store employees cannot ask about a person's disability or require medical documentation for the guest. The ADA also states those employees cannot ask for an identification card for the dog or ask that a dog demonstrate its service abilities.
The store called the Jefferson City Police Department after asking Wissinger to leave. Jefferson City Police Captain Doug Shoemaker confirmed officers responded to the store when employees questioned whether Kurban was a service dog.The ADA states a person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless:
1) The dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it
2) The dog is not housebroken
No accounts from the police department, Menards or Wissinger name Kurban's behavior as a factor in the incident. Wissinger says he has a disability that is not visually obvious. He says he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and intermittent vertigo after serving as a U.S. Army staff sergeant in Iraq from about 2004 to 2005. He said he sustained inner ear damage that led to vertigo from repeated blasts, exposures and gun shots. Wissinger said Kurban can sense when vertigo hits and braces against him. Wissinger also said Kurban calms him during anxiety attacks.
"He needs his service dog to function individually without me necessarily being there," fiance Aleks Wissinger said. She was with them the day of the incident. "Approaching anyone with a disability the way Patrick was approached is going to cause high anxiety, and it is very embarrassing."
Chuck Graham is an ADA policy analyst with the Great Plains ADA Center in Columbia. "If a person with a disability feels they were discriminated against, they can call and ask us for information." Graham also said the use of service dogs for people with "hidden" disabilities is becoming more widespread. "I think a lot of people understand ramps and grab rails and wheelchairs and parking spots, but a lot of times they don't understand... mental disabilities or something not quite as obvious," Graham said.
According to the 2010 ADA Revised Requirements, the disabilities Wissinger claims are recognized by the federal government. The requirements cite "calming a person with... PTSD during an anxiety attack" as an example of a task a service dog could be trained to perform. "If they did go beyond the scope of asking was this just a service animal and what tasks is he trained to do... then yes, they did violate the ADA," MU School of Law Associate Professor Brad Desnoyer said. Desnoyer teaches legal research and writing.
KOMU 8 News reached out to Menards for a response to the incident, and spokesman Jeff Abbott replied by e-mail: "Menards complies with State and Federal Law as it relates to providing reasonable accommodations to our guests and team members. When Mr. Wissinger entered the Jefferson City Menards store with his animal, he was simply asked whether or not his dog was a service animal. Upon being told that the dog was a service animal, Menards allowed Mr. Wissinger to complete his shopping."
Because the above statement does not address the police involvement or Wissinger's claims of embarrassment, KOMU 8 News asked for specific responses to those concerns. In response, a second e-mail stated, "It is unfortunate that the Guest felt humiliated as that certainly was not our intent. As previously mentioned, Menards complies with State and Federal law as it relates to providing reasonable accommodations to our guests and team members. The Jefferson City Police Department was called, but only to confirm that the Jefferson City Menards was complying with all laws and regulations related to service animals."
Wissinger has since filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) against Menards and specifically T.J. Peterson, the assistant general manager Wissinger claims followed him around the store. Peterson refused to comment on the incident, saying Menards corporate issued KOMU 8 News the statements.
The DOJ could file suit against Menards if it found an ADA violation, but Patrick and Aleks Wissinger said a payout is not their goal. "We want to educate the businesses," Aleks Wissinger said. "The best thing that could come from this case, more than monetary damages, is just an awareness of what it is to have a disability... and how we can have these service animals, how they can benefit individuals," Desnoyer said.
The two also said they want an apology from Peterson and Menards, but it has not come.