When veteran Michelle McHenry-Edrington was kicked out of Gigi's Wigs for bringing in a service animal, she sat in her car, shocked and struggling to breathe. Then she drove straight to the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition — and a lawsuit was filed the next day.
The CCDC, which often represents the disabled in discrimination lawsuits, is alleging that Gigi's Wigs and Beauty Supply violated both federal and state anti-discrimination laws when the owner, Taek J. Yi, removed McHenry-Edrington after he saw that she was accompanied by her service dog.
"The most important thing is that people comply with the law," says Kevin Williams, legal-program director at the CCDC, adding that federal protections for owners of service animals have been in place for 27 years.
McHenry-Edrington, a military veteran who is the non-attorney advocacy coordinator at the CCDC, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities. For support, she worked with the Wounded Warrior Project's canine assistance program and met a black labrador named Edgar. Since training and receiving the proper certificates, Edgar has legally accompanied her just about everywhere.
Williams, who knows McHenry-Edrington personally, says that Edgar is an incredible help to her.
"It is amazing to me, having done this kind of work for twenty years, how much dogs are capable of doing. They do all sorts of things, even detecting seizures," says Williams. "He's the most beautiful black lab and husky mix, and you wouldn't even know he was [there]. He's as docile as could be. And that's a typical service animal."
Williams says that when she walked into the store, McHenry-Edrington was first approached by a female employee who asked her to leave the dog outside. Despite repeated attempts to explain that Edgar was a service animal, the employees "screamed at her" until she left her merchandise and fled to the parking lot.
Yi, the owner of Gigi's, declined to comment, saying that he wanted to wait until the lawsuit was over.
The CCDC, representing McHenry-Edrington for free, is filing in both federal and state courts, under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, as well as the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act and a specific Colorado statute that prohibits any intentional misrepresentation of a service animal.
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Under the ADA rules, even owners with poorly trained service dogs are entitled to leave their dogs outside or in their car before returning to buy merchandise. But that didn't happen at Gigi's, says Williams.
"They just told her to get out," he says.
Yi could face a fine of up to $3,500, pay for damages and attorney's fees, or be forced to change his business policy.