ADVERTISEMENT

Tevlin: Disabled Minneapolis man, dog fight for the rights of service animal

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • November 26, 2013 - 8:57 PM

Baby, a 12-pound Shih-poo dog that looks like a small dust mop, entered the White Castle on Lake Street like she owned the place.

“Hi, Baby,” workers called from behind the counter. As her owner Michael Heath went to order a meal, Baby waddled over to a group of regulars.

Heath and Baby have become fixtures, and sometimes annoyances, at businesses in the area. The man and his dog are challenging the letter of the law on what constitutes a “service animal,” and how freely they can roam inside businesses.

After several years of going to the Burger King on 34th and Nicollet, with Baby off leash while he ate breakfast, Heath and Baby were booted out after Baby “jumped” on a customer who was afraid of dogs, according to court documents.

Heath sued and won a settlement earlier this year, under the condition that he and Baby never enter the premises again. Heath took that to mean he couldn’t go inside the restaurant. So, he started going to the drive-through window, with no complaints.

“I really like their breakfast sandwiches,” he explained.

Heath had gone to the drive-through many times, then one day an employee asked him to pull into the lot to wait for his order, he said. Soon, two police cars arrived. Officers let him get his food, then cited him for criminal trespassing. He will appear in court Wednesday.

(An attorney for the restaurant declined to discuss the case).

It is just the latest in a string of run-ins for Heath, a 66-year-old former dentist who now lives on disability, and Baby. They have been removed from other restaurants as well as the local YMCA.

Heath said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from a beating he received years ago. He said he has episodes in which he doesn’t know where he is or has flashbacks and becomes unstable and confused. He has a letter from his doctor recommending he be allowed into establishments with the dog, off leash, because of a brain injury.

A letter from the Disability Law Center says that “Baby assists Mr. Heath by alerting him to when he is going to have a psychiatric episode by walking in a circle around his legs, nudging him and barking.”

Burger King’s attorneys argued that “while he may not like leashing his dog, he is required to do so,” and said Heath was warned for “repeated failure to control his dog.”

They also pointed out that Heath simply declared his dog as a service dog and trained him himself, choosing not to use a recognized trainer.

In fact, however, there is no certification process for service dogs, according to Pamela Hoopes, the center’s legal director. Hoopes said federal changes have confused people about service dog laws. Businesses cannot ask for medical documentation, nor can they ask about the dog owner’s disability. They can ask only if the animal is a service dog for a disability and what task the dog is trained to perform, Hoopes said. People can also have dogs off leash if the dog might be hindered from helping them while on a leash.

Burger King’s contention was that Baby was not attentive to Heath because she frequently wandered around the restaurant. Ironically, when Heath was having trouble at the YMCA nearby, Heath asked Burger King workers to vouch for Baby’s behavior. Several employees and regular customers wrote testimonials to “the sweetest, calmest dog ever.”

“He needs no leash, he’s under voice control,” said one.

Heath’s contract at the Y was terminated because he brought Baby into the pool area and locker room.

“The law says the only place a service dog is not allowed is in a sterile operating room,” Heath said.

Heath admits he pushes the boundaries of the law. “I don’t mind suing if that’s what it takes to educate people,” he said. “I know some people won’t like that.”

Heath admits that Baby sometimes strays from him but comes quickly when called. To demonstrate at White Castle, Heath took Baby to another booth, then pretended to have an episode, shielding his head and going down on one knee. Baby ran to him, barking and pawing, then licking his face.

When Heath goes to court for trespassing this week, Baby will be with him.

Heath stroked Baby’s head fondly.

“I don’t really know if I’d go out much without Baby,” Heath said. “She is about perfect.”

 

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

© 2014 Star Tribune