Service dog flap at Aspen cafe sets off complaint with justice department
A flap at an Aspen coffee shop over a man’s service dog has prompted the canine’s owner to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, but city officials say Ink Coffee appropriately addressed the situation.
Ivan Lustig had been a regular at the popular coffee shop for the past few years, but now he’s no longer permitted to visit the premises with his service dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Kobi.
“I have acute anxiety syndrome, and I have panic attacks, and he proves to be a buffer between me and my anxiety,” Lustig said. “He provides a calming effect.”
For years, Ink allowed Lustig and his dog on the premises, but when Lustig wouldn’t remove Kobi from one of the lounge area’s couches April 29, a patron called police.
“A customer came into the business and said, ‘Your dog cannot be on the couch,’” Lustig said. “I asked him, ‘Are you a police officer?’ and he said, “No.’ I told him to mind his own business.”
The Aspen Police Department didn’t file a detailed report of the incident. Its limited description says “man with service dog, asked to remove dog from couch, getting agitated, threatened (reporting party).”
The next day, Ink Coffee informed Lustig that he and Kobi were banned from the property.
Keith Herbert, who founded the Aspen cafe in 1994 and has turned it into a 13-store chain in Colorado, said the situation is unfortunate, but the April 29 incident wasn’t isolated.
“The cops had to show up, and that wasn’t the first time a customer complained about this,” said Herbert, who is president and CEO of Denver-based Ink Coffee. “We asked him 10 times not do that. You can’t allow the dog on the couch.”
Rachel Burmeister, an environmental-health specialist for the city of Aspen, said Ink took the correct steps.
“The restaurant always has the ability to ask a patron to leave if the service dog is not acting in an appropriate way,” she said. “Getting on couches, getting out of control, are legitimate reasons to move the dog from the premises. In Ivan’s situation, they asked him to move his dog and he refused, and the police got involved.”
Lustig said it wasn’t his intention to burden the cafe. He takes his dog almost everywhere he goes and is selective about his destinations.
“I don’t want to drag him into a steakhouse, although legally I’m entitled to,” he said.
He said the customer overreacted the day in question.
“Kobi was on the ground and then jumped on the couch, and the customer started down the road with this drama,” he said.
The event prompted him to file a complaint with the Justice Department, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act. The status of the complaint is pending.
“I don’t want them doing this to anybody else,” Lustig said. “That’s my motivation.”
According to the ADA’s website, “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
Burmeister said Lustig’s incident is hardly a first in Aspen. Other Aspen businesses also serve customers with service dogs, but it’s not always a clear-cut scenario.
When employees see a customer with a dog, they can only ask the person two questions, according to ADA regulations.
“When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed,” the ADA says. “Staff may ask two questions: (1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”
In the meantime, Lustig said he’s found a couple of new places to enjoy his morning coffee: Peach’s Corner Cafe and Starbucks.
“It was very embarrassing and equally embarrassing the following day when I was told I couldn’t come back and they didn’t want me or my dog back,” he said. “Almost all of the people in there I know personally from being there over the years. It was terribly embarrassing. I make it my business to be nice to people.”
Herbert said “it’s a fine line. We would never refuse service because they have a service dog in there, but it got to the point where this dog wasn’t acting like a service dog.”
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Aspen Sister Cities members dedicated a plaque in Sister Cities Plaza to Don Sheeley, who served as president of the organization from 1998 until his death in 2017.