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[whitespace] Teresa Oliver
Photograph by Jeff Kearns

Tongue Lashing: Filo, the service dog belonging to Teresa Oliver, was the reason she and her family were unable to get served at Denny's, a chain slapped hard with discrimination settlements in the '90s.

Dogged Pursuit

A handicapped woman's lawsuit may teach restaurant managers of a Denny's in Campbell some expensive new tricks

By Jeff Kearns

SITTING WITH her two children at the Denny's on Bascom Avenue in Campbell, Teresa Oliver knew something was up. Other customers were getting their lunches, but nobody came to her table.

"We just never got served," Oliver says. "People around us were being served, or were getting their food, or finishing and leaving. Other people were being seated, and their orders were being taken, but our orders never were."

Oliver was already stressed out. It was a Saturday afternoon in May, and she'd had to pick up a few boxes for her husband, who had started working Saturdays. In a wheelchair, picking up boxes and taking the kids out to lunch are no easy feats.

Oliver, 45, suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, a rare form of muscular dystrophy, which she's had all her life. The disease is progressive and degenerative, so Oliver's nerves and muscles will continue to deteriorate. She's not paralyzed, though she has used a motorized wheelchair on and off for the last 20 years. And she gets help from her service dog, a golden retriever named Filo who follows her everywhere. Under federal law, Filo is allowed to go anywhere she goes.

With her daughter Cherice, 11, and son Robbie, 9, Oliver says she waited for almost half an hour that Saturday. But when someone finally came over, it was the manager, and he wasn't there to jot down what they wanted for lunch.

"He came around the back of me and said, 'You're going to have to leave. There are customers complaining about the dog,'" Oliver recalls. "So I started to explain to him what the dog was, but he put his hand up and said, 'No, no, no.' I started to say something again, and he did the same thing."

Shaken by the situation, Oliver went to the front lobby and called the police. Campbell officers arrived but said they couldn't do anything. Other customers rallied to Oliver's defense. One woman, who had been sitting next to the Olivers, later filed a complaint with the Santa Clara County Commission for Persons with Disabilities. Oliver says another man, who the manager said had complained, came over on his way out to pet her dog. "So I told him that they wouldn't serve me, and then he cussed at the manager."

When she got back to her home in Almaden, Oliver tried to call or email the Denny's restaurant chain but couldn't find any contact information on the web. Other local restaurants said they didn't have a number for the company.

Unable to let it drop, Oliver called a lawyer's radio talk show. The host told her to get an attorney. She did, and this week Oliver filed suit against the East Bay company that owns the Denny's restaurant franchise.

Managing Anxiety

Restaurant managers have a different view of what happened that day. They say the Olivers were never refused service, and the whole thing was all just a big misunderstanding.

"Yeah, I remember her," says manager Ramon Mendoza, the one who approached Oliver. "I asked her to leave the dog outside because all of the customers were complaining about it." Mendoza says he didn't refuse to serve Oliver.

The restaurant is one of four Bay Area Denny's franchises owned by the Benicia-based Creative Restaurant Group. Company manager Bert Benepal says the whole thing was a misunderstanding because the manager didn't know what was going on.

"The customer who was at the next table objected to the dog," Benepal says. "He felt that it was not a blindness dog, and so the manager went over and asked the lady, Would you please take the dog outside? and the lady complied."

"We did not deny her service. The manager should have explained a little bit differently to the lady that the other customer was complaining about the dog, and he just asked her to take the dog outside. She did, but I guess that she didn't feel comfortable with that."

Since the incident, Benepal says the franchise owners have "counseled the manager" on the correct way to handle service dogs.

Denny's, whose run-in with two well-publicized discrimination complaints in 1993 cost it $46 million, has an 800 number that customers can call with complaints, but there's no record of Oliver calling it, Benepal says.

But it might be too late for that, legally speaking. And while managers say it was a misunderstanding, Madeline Damiano, the eyewitness who filed the complaint with the county, said in her letter that several customers explained the law about service dogs to Mendoza, including one woman who worked as a service-dog trainer.

Denny's Inc., the 1,749-restaurant chain based in Spartanburg, S.C., is one of the largest restaurant companies in the United States. According to a company spokesperson, Denny's doesn't bar animals from restaurants, and they can't be dragged into court if franchises do. After settling the discrimination suits, Denny's had to add specific language to their franchise contracts requiring compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act.

Debbie Atkins, a flak for Denny's parent company, Advantica Restaurant Group Inc., says franchisees are expected to follow state and federal disability laws. At company-owned restaurants, all employees get video training on how to serve disabled customers. Atkins says the tape makes it clear that service dogs are allowed to go wherever their owners go.

"Service animals are welcome at Denny's," Atkins says.

Employees at franchises, which account for about two-thirds of all Denny's restaurants, don't get the same training. "Franchisees are independent owner-operators," Atkins says. "So the franchisee retains the responsibility for employment and all other matters related to the restaurant."

Which means Creative Restaurant Group may have to fight this one alone in court.

Star Pooch

Sitting in the conference room at a downtown San Jose law office while Oliver dispassionately recalls the restaurant experience, Filo is invisible, curled up under the table at her feet. That's a service-dog's job. If there's nothing to do, stay down. Filo doesn't move or make a sound. Later, as a photographer tries to take a portrait of Filo standing in front of Oliver, the dog won't cooperate. He's trained to stand by Oliver's side, and that's where he stays.

Filo, who is 4 years old, wears a little blue nylon vest emblazoned with the yellow logo of Canine Companions for Independence and a reflective stripe. He has four licenses: two from the state and two from service dog organizations. He's Oliver's second dog and has worked for her for two years.

The two trained together as a team at CCI's facility in Santa Rosa. Before she could take the dog, Oliver lived there and trained extensively with Filo.

Since its founding 27 years ago, CCI spokesman Pete Rapoulis says the nonprofit has trained more than 2,000 dogs that have been placed all over the country.

For the puppies, the process is something like joining the Special Forces: nine of 10 candidates are eliminated. Those that make it through the process aren't perfect, but they're close to it, Rapoulis says: "In the three years I've been here, I've never heard of any of our dogs doing anything in public that would make them a nuisance. We'd take the dog back if that happened. We don't want one dog doing something that would jeopardize everyone else's rights."

Rapoulis says Oliver is "one of our most highly regarded local graduates," but that what happened isn't rare. "It's something that happens fairly frequently to graduates of programs like ours. If you're not obviously blind with a guide dog, a lot of people just don't understand that there are dogs that are trained to do other things and [that] they have the same legal rights to public places as a seeing eye dog."

Filo is trained to do the usual things like open doors and pick things up, but he does more, Oliver says: "He can open the refrigerator and get a drink out; he can turn the lights on and off; he can pick up the dirty clothes on the floor. He has the strength to do things that my arms can't.

"He also gives me the courage to go out and do things."

Discrimination Nation

When the radio talk-show host told Oliver to talk to an attorney, she looked under civil rights attorneys in the Yellow Pages and found Marc Eisenhart. She hired him a week and a half after the Denny's encounter.

Eisenhart filed the suit under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which contains many of the same provisions as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Oliver's suit was filed on behalf of the public, meaning all other victims of similar types of discrimination, though it won't seek class-action status. Eisenhart says he's not sure if he'll add Denny's Inc. as a defendant, because he hasn't seen the franchise agreement, but he plans to if he can. If that happens, it wouldn't be the chain's first discrimination suit.

In 1993, the company was slapped with two class-action racial-discrimination suits that ballooned into a PR disaster. Two African American groups complained that blacks, including two Secret Service agents, were refused service. The company shelled out $46 million to settle as its stock lost almost all of its value. After that, however, the company pulled off a comprehensive turnaround, writing strong anti-discrimination policies, bringing minorities into the ranks of top management and steering business to minority-owned contractors.

Denny's Inc. is also more isolated from liability: the percentage of franchise-owned restaurants has doubled in the last decade.

But as Advantica wins kudos for its turnaround effort, Oliver's suit exposes a weak link in the training at one franchise.

Oakland attorney Ron Palmeri, considered by service-dog advocates to be one of the leading lawyers in the dog-discrimination field, says Oliver's case fits the pattern. "Usually, it's ignorance by the managers, sometimes it's ego." Palmeri has successfully sued several times on behalf of service dog owners who complained they were refused service or treated unfairly.

"You see the most in the service industry, most frequently cabs, restaurants and retail," Palmeri says. "A lot of people are subjected to this almost every day. It's very common, and it causes a great deal of humiliation to these people. It's a violation of both federal and state law, so there's no excuse for it. A working dog is so well trained and so out of the way. It's not like me taking my dog to restaurants, where he'd be jumping up on all the tables and stealing food."

In a recent suit, he took on cab companies that wouldn't pick up blind customers with guide dogs. "It's bad with the cabs because a lot of times they'll just drive by, and if you're blind you don't know if the cab's there or not, and you're still out there waiting."

But after observing cases like that, Palmeri says the situation probably won't improve anytime soon, because victims are reluctant to press the issue.

"These people are so embarrassed by the situation that most of them don't pursue it," Palmeri says. "They try to lead as normal a life as they can--to take classes, to work at jobs and be self-sufficient--and they always run into the jerk who's going to discriminate against them. It's almost every day, sometimes two or three times a day, that someone is going to deny them access or equal treatment, and most of them are so humiliated that they just want to get on with their lives."

Making Mom Cry

It was the humiliation that got to Oliver. While there are everyday obstacles, Oliver tries hard not to let the disease keep her from doing what she needs to do. She drives an unmodified Plymouth Voyager and home-schools Cherice and Robbie. Afew years ago, she ran her own day-care buisiness. "I'm not the kind of person who says everyone needs to change their building to accommodate me," she says.

Still, the incident at Denny's, even if it was a misunderstanding, went deeper for Oliver because she felt like it called into question her ability as a parent--and made her feel ashamed again of how the world sees her.

"I was crying," Oliver remembers. "I was really shook up. It just really threw me because I was trying so hard to take care of the kids and the things that needed to be done, and it just hit me--as if to say that I couldn't do it. I get very upset when it seems like I'm not going to be able to take care of my kids."

Cherice says she's upset about the situation and may be on to something that eluded Creative Restaurant Group's owners. "I think they should tell people more about the law before they can be the manager of a restaurant and inform them so they don't lose customers. I was pretty angry. They shouldn't have made us leave, and they shouldn't have made my mom cry."

Ironically, the reason Oliver decided to take the kids to the Campbell Denny's is because she thought it would be able to meet her needs.

"There are a lot of places that don't accommodate wheelchairs very well and don't have restrooms I can use. I chose that Denny's because I assumed that they would be able to accommodate me."

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From the July 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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