A blind man is suing the city of Winston-Salem, alleging that two police officers forced him and his guide dog, Forte, to leave a store in Hanes Mall last year after a store worker objected to the dog being there.
If Wilmer Oliva of Winston-Salem hadn’t left the store on Nov. 27,2020, the lawsuit says, he would have been arrested and charged with trespassing.
Oliva, 36, wants a federal judge to declare that Winston-Salem violated provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, which allows service dogs in public places, according to the lawsuit.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person qualified to receive nondiscriminatory services from a public entity cannot be subjected to discrimination, the lawsuit says. Under the Rehabilitation Act, cities that received federal money must respect the rights of people with disabilities.
Oliva also is seeking a jury trial, compensatory damages, court costs and payment of his attorney fees.
“All I want is justice,” Oliva said Thursday. “I just want to make sure that no one with a service animal endures what I did that day.”
Christopher Hodgson of Raleigh, an attorney for Disability Rights North Carolina and one of Oliva’s attorneys, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Greensboro. Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit organization, defends the rights of people with disabilities in the state.
“The WSPD should have known better than to forcibly threaten to arrest a blind shopper for simply using (his) guide dog, as they did to Mr. Oliva,” Hodgson said.
Oliva is legally blind, and works at IFB Solutions in Winston-Salem.
Forte, his service dog, was professionally trained by The Seeing Eye of Morristown, N.J., a philanthropic organization that breeds and trains guide dogs for blind people, according to the lawsuit.
“His blindness and need for navigation assistance (are) readily obvious,” the lawsuit says.
Lori Sykes, the city’s public safety attorney, said the city hasn’t been served with the lawsuit.
“We are not able to comment on pending litigation,” Sykes said.
Chief Catrina Thompson of the Winston-Salem Police Department couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment on the lawsuit.
Oliva initially entered Jimmy Jazz, a clothing store, in Hanes Mall in October 2020, about a month before the incident during which police were called. Forte was with him.
Jimmy Jazz Corp., which is based in Secaucus, N.J., is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit. No representative of the clothing store could be reached for comment.
The store manager told Oliva to leave the store because of Forte, the lawsuit says. Oliva complied, left the store and contacted the Consumer Protection Division of the N.C. Department of Justice.
Oliva told the agency that he had experienced disability-based discrimination at the store.
After Oliva filed his complaint, a Jimmy Jazz official assured Oliva that he and Forte could return to the store. The official also said signs would be posted welcoming service animals, according to the lawsuit.
After Oliva received those assurances, he and Forte went again to the store on Nov. 27, 2020. The store manager saw Oliva and insisted that Oliva leave the store because Forte wasn’t wearing a vest indicating that she is a service animal, according to the lawsuit.
Forte was wearing a guide dog harness and handle with “The Seeing Eye” on it, the lawsuit says. Oliva told the store manager that Forte was his guide dog, and the laws regarding service animals don’t require those animals to wear vests.
The store manager then ordered Oliva to leave the store or she would call the police, the lawsuit says.
Oliva again asserted his right to have his service animal with him.
The store’s staff then contacted Hanes Mall security and Winston-Salem police, according to the suit. Two Hanes Mall security employees then arrived at the store, and Oliva told them that he had a right to be in a public place with his service dog.
Oliva also provided information to the security officers information about service animals “to help them understand the right to use service animals in public places,” the lawsuit says.
The security employees agreed that Forte was allowed in the store, the lawsuit says. Two police officers then arrived.
One officer asked the store manager if she wanted Oliva to leave. When the manager said yes, the officer ordered Oliva to leave the store.
That officer also asked a Hanes Mall security employee if she wanted Oliva to leave Hanes Mall as well, the lawsuit says. The security employee said no, according to the suit.
Oliva told both officers that the store was a public place, and the store’s policy permitted customers to use service animals, according to the lawsuit.
Oliva also provided the officers with the information about service animals.
An officer then told Oliva, according to the lawsuit, that he and his partner weren’t interested in service animals or his materials about service animals.
“The police officers were concerned only with the store’s right to remove whomever they want for whatever reason because the store is private property,” the lawsuit says.
One of the officers then gave Oliva an ultimatum: “You have two options … to leave the store — you can leave here on your own or you can leave here in handcuffs and you can go to jail for trespassing,” according to the lawsuit.
Oliva complied with the officers’ orders. The officers told Oliva that he would be charged with trespassing if he ever returned to the store, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges that the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
The Rehabilitation Act requires cities that receive federal money not to discriminate against people with disabilities, the lawsuit says. Last year, Winston-Salem received $22 million in federal money.
“Under these federal laws, the city is prohibited from limiting or interfering with service animal rights and is obligated to modify its policies, practices and procedures to permit the use of service animals in public places …,” the lawsuit says.
“The city didn’t comply with federal mandates and unlawfully discriminated against (Oliva) in violation of these laws,” the lawsuit says. “The city infringed upon Oliva’s rights to use a service animal.”