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Fairgoer howls foul over service dog dispute

Clinton resident Laurie Cecil poses for a picture with her dog, Rielley. She uses him as a service dog and claims to have been unjustly asked to leave the Whidbey Island Area Fair. She also uses him for promotion of her private business. - Ron Newberry / The Record
Clinton resident Laurie Cecil poses for a picture with her dog, Rielley. She uses him as a service dog and claims to have been unjustly asked to leave the Whidbey Island Area Fair. She also uses him for promotion of her private business.
— image credit: Ron Newberry / The Record

An incident at the Whidbey Island Area Fair last week may soon become the subject of an investigation by the Washington Human Rights Commission.

Clinton resident Laurie Cecil confirmed Thursday that she is in the process of filing a discrimination complaint with the state agency over the eviction of her service dog by a fair official.

Cecil was asked to leave Friday, Aug. 17, on the grounds that her poodle was not a real service dog. She and the animal were escorted out by Langley police.

Cecil says her dog is no pet and that the animal’s rejection was illegal and a violation of her civil rights.

“By law, he’s allowed to be with me,” Cecil said. “I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else...It was horrible.”

Manager Sandey Brandon, the fair official who asked Cecil to remove her dog from fair property, denies any violation occurred.

Service dogs are allowed on the grounds, but she contends Cecil failed to adequately answer lawfully permitted questions designed to help owners or managers establish the validity of a service dog.

“People can’t simply say it’s a service dog and make it so,” Brandon said.

Despite the differing legal interpretations, Cecil’s complaint will automatically spark a Commission investigation to determine whether a violation really occurred, said Laura Lindstrand, a policy analyst with the state agency.

The Commission is a law enforcement agency, she said, and will examine the circumstances closely. Any investigation would be a civil rather than criminal matter.

According to Cecil, she and Brandon have had past run-ins concerning her parti poodle, Rielley, including a confrontation at the 2012 fair and earlier this year at a Freeland grocery store.

Cecil said she’d been at the fair a few hours Friday and was walking past the fair office at about noon when a voice from inside called out for her to stop.

“I thought, ‘Oh crud, it’s Sandey,’” Cecil said.

Cecil claims she informed Brandon that she has type 2 diabetes and that the dog was trained to alert her of trouble.

Cecil said she even offered to show her a doctor’s note but Brandon allegedly refused. The police were called and Cecil was walked out and her money refunded.

According to Dave Marks, Langley’s interim police chief, Cecil was not asked to leave because of her animal but because the officer determined it to be a civil matter involving an “ongoing issue between two parties.”

He noted that the law surrounding service dogs is pretty clear and a person can’t be evicted simply because an official disputes an animal’s validity.

“You can’t just kick out a service dog because you say it’s not a service dog,” he said.

Lindstrand agreed. Pets are not service dogs and the law requires them to be trained, but there is no official certification process.

A dog is a service dog if a person says it’s been trained to provide services related to the person’s disability, Lindstrand said.Officials or property owners can ask two questions: Is the animal a pet and what services has it been trained to provide, said Lindstrand.

“The only proof they have to offer is the answers to the questions,” Lindstrand said.

Just what was said during the Friday incident remains unclear. While Cecil claims to have divulged enough details, Brandon said her response was unsatisfactory.

“She didn’t adequately answer the question,” Brandon said.

Further confusing the issue is that Cecil uses her dog for advertising purposes. She has a dog grooming service and the animal’s fur was partly dyed red.

According to Brandon, fair rules prohibit people from private business promotion and Cecil was seen passing out business cards.

Brandon said she even gave one to the officer who escorted her outside the fairgrounds.

“Regardless of the service dog issue, she would have been asked to leave,” Brandon said.

Mitch Hardin, the Langley police officer involved in the incident, said Cecil did talk about her condition and that the dog was “trained to alert her of a problem” but did not go into more detail.

“She was pretty vague,” Hardin said.

However, he repeated this was a civil matter and that using her dog to solicit her business violated fair rules. That was enough to ask her to remove her dog, he said.

Hardin also confirmed that Cecil gave him a business card outside the grounds.

But Cecil says there is nothing illegal about a service dog with dual roles. There is no statute that says they can’t be both, she said.

The fair has several reasons for being particular about only allowing legitimate service dogs on the grounds. Along with liability issues of possibly dangerous canines, a free-for-all with pets would put show animals at unnecessary risk of infection.

“You don’t want little Suzy’s animal to infect little Johnny’s animal,” said Dan Ollis, a member of the Fair Association’s Board of Directors.

Ollis said he believes fair officials have an accurate understanding of the law and that this appears to be a matter of conflicting accounts.

The jury is still out about just who “goofed up,” he said, but he also made it clear that he doesn’t believe the fair’s policy and treatment of service dogs is a purposeful violation of state rules.

“I think we’re trying to do it right until we know we’re doing it wrong,” Ollis said.

Brandon also noted that she was not singling Cecil out, that several other people were also asked to remove their service animals. One man had post traumatic stress disorder, she said. It wasn’t personal with him and it wasn’t personal with Cecil, Brandon said.

Cecil said her dog goes with her everywhere and that this is the first time she’s ever had a problem.

“I’m not going to let this slide,” Cecil said. “It was really embarrassing.”

According to Lindstrand, an investigation will require Cecil to prove that her dog is in fact trained with a demonstration.

If the conclusion is that a violation did indeed occur, the next step would be an attempt to reach a settlement between the two parties.

If that fails, the matter is forwarded to the state Assistant Attorney General for civil prosecution, she said.

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