Bernie, a Labrador retriever, trained for two years at Guiding Eyes for the Blind to be a service animal.
“He was clean, well behaved, very quiet and always under my control,” said his owner, Lisa Irving of Mill Valley, who is legally blind.
Yet when Irving would summon an Uber, she said drivers frequently balked at letting Bernie in their cars, even as she explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act entitled her service animal to accompany her.
Often the drivers would leave her stranded, needing to find another ride. Sometimes she ended up late to doctors’ appointments or to her work as a liaison to people with mental health challenges. She had a birthday celebration ruined and missed a Christmas Eve church service.
Irving took legal action against Uber, resulting in an arbitrator this month awarding her $324,000 in damages plus legal expenses of $805,313, along with a strongly worded statement that Uber had failed in its duty to comply with the ADA.
The arbitrator rejected Uber’s defense that it was not responsible for drivers’ discriminatory conduct because it considered them to be gig workers, not employees. This stance is central to the company’s business model, and it battles ferociously to maintain it.
“The arbitrator said it’s irrelevant whether they are independent contractors or employees — Uber is on the hook under the ADA,” said Irving’s counsel, Cat Cabalo, a San Francisco lawyer with the firm of Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane and Conway. “They are providing a transportation service to the public. The ADA has very strict requirements on allowing service dogs to travel with people they assist.”
Uber said it thought the arbitrator’s decision was wrong about the law, reiterating that its drivers are not its employees or agents.
“We are proud Uber’s technology has helped people who are blind locate and obtain rides,” the San Francisco ride-hailing company said in a statement. “Drivers using the Uber app are expected to serve riders with service animals and comply with accessibility and other laws, and we regularly provide education to drivers on that responsibility.”
Irving, like most riders and drivers, agreed to mandatory arbitration when she signed up to use Uber. Arbitration agreements don’t carry the same weight of precedent as court decisions. But unlike many settlements, this one is not sealed, so that it can have ramifications beyond this case.
“Even though it does not have precedential value as an arbitration award, we hope it is shared widely and the reasoning is adopted by other arbitrators and courts,” said Jana Eisinger, a Denver lawyer who was co-counsel on the case. “Because we’re able to publicize the nonconfidential aspects, it should be beneficial to others who are looking to courts and arbitrators.”
Uber has faced a variety of legal actions over access for disabled people. Berkeley’s Disability Rights Advocates sued both Uber and rival Lyft in 2018 over their lack of wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The cases are ongoing.
The National Federation of the Blind sued Uber in 2014 over the guide-dog issues. In a settlement that started in early 2017, Uber agreed to ensure that drivers knew they were required to provide equal service to people with disabilities who travel with service dogs.
But the problems Irving cited in her case took place in both 2016 and 2017 — including some after the settlement was in place. (She said she also experienced Uber issues in 2018, but they were not part of the case.)
“Despite the fact that drivers were supposed to have received training, emails and (other information from Uber), it was very apparent that many drivers either didn’t read the information or didn’t understand it or it wasn’t linguistically appropriate,” Irving said.
Uber said it prohibits discrimination. Its drivers agree to transport service animals and comply with accessibility laws when they sign up, and receive in-app notices and quarterly reminders about its U.S. service animal policy, it said.
More recently, Bernie has retired and Irving has not encountered issues when riding without a guide dog.
She found her prior experiences demeaning and dehumanizing.
“It was telling me I don’t belong; that I don’t have a right to live my life on my own terms and do the same things any other individual would have the autonomy to decide to do,” she said.
Irving’s experiences happened mainly in San Diego where she used to live. While the arbitration covered 14 incidents, she said she experienced at least 60 ride rejections.
Even harder were the times that drivers let her in the car but then actively berated her.
“The memories don’t go away; it’s painful,” she said, recounting a time one Uber driver agreed to drive her and Bernie but grew increasingly angry about the dog’s presence to the point that he screamed at Irving and threatened to leave them by the side of a busy freeway. She was able to calm down the driver and complete the ride, but she still remembers the dread and anxiety that wracked her.
She reported the incidents to Uber, but that became harder as its complaint process changed, removing a dedicated phone line that individuals with disabilities could call to reach a live person.
Uber said it has a special form on the web and in its app for riders to report issues about service animals. It investigates each complaint “and takes appropriate action,” it said.
“I’m sorry it came to this,” Irving said about the case. “I would have preferred that my civil rights be respected. But it sends a strong message that this is not acceptable and (entities that discriminate) will be held accountable for their actions until they change.”