Wilmer Oliva was reportedly asked to leave the same store at a North Carolina mall twice in the span of one month because of a dog named Forte.
Oliva is blind — and Forte is his guide dog.
The pair willingly left after the first incident, according to federal court filings. But Oliva decided to stand his ground when it happened again, prompting mall security and the local police department to get involved. Oliva said the officers ultimately forced him and his dog to leave the store for “trespassing.”
Now the city is accused of violating federal anti-discrimination laws that protect individuals with disabilities.
Disability Rights North Carolina filed a federal complaint Wednesday on Oliva’s behalf against the the city of Winston-Salem, saying the officers’ actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I just want to make sure no one with a service animal endures what I did that day,” Oliva said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “No one with a disability should be treated in such a brutal way. We have a right to be in this world, just like anybody else. Sometimes we just need assistance, like I do with Forte.”
The city hasn’t responded to the complaint, and representatives with the city attorney’s office and police department didn’t immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on Friday.
According to court documents, Oliva’s altercation with the police unfolded at Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem.
The mall is home to over 200 stores and is the largest enclosed mall between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., according to CBL Properties, the real estate group that owns it.
In October, Oliva was shopping with Forte at Jimmy Jazz — a clothing and shoe store on the first floor — when he was asked to leave by the manager, Disability Rights NC said. After he left, Oliva filed a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Justice Consumer Protection Division.
Jimmy Jazz reportedly told Oliva in response that he was welcome to return to the store with Forte and it would “post a sign in the window welcoming the inclusion of service animals,” the complaint states.
But when Oliva came back to Jimmy Jazz on Black Friday, the store manager told him to leave again — “this time because Forte was not wearing a vest indicating she is a service animal,” Disability Rights NC said.
Forte was instead wearing a harness with a handle that read “The Seeing Eye.”
Despite Oliva’s protestations that service animal laws don’t require animals to wear vests, his lawyers said, the manager called Hanes Mall Security and the Winston-Salem Police Department.
Two security guards arrived first, and Oliva reportedly gave then “informational material about service animals” to help explain the situation. They agreed he and Forte had a right to be in the store — until the police showed up.
According to the complaint, one of the officers “immediately turned to the store manager and asked if she wanted Mr. Oliva to leave the store.” When the manager said yes, the officer reportedly demanded he go.
The officer then asked the security guards if they wanted Oliva removed from the mall, to which the guards said no. Oliva also tried to give the officers the same informational material he gave the guards, Disability Rights NC said.
“One of the WSPD officers told Mr. Oliva that he and his partner were not interested in service animals and information about service animals,” the complaint states. “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.”
Oliva and Forte left Jimmy Jazz after the cop gave him an ultimatum — exiting the store on his own or in handcuffs.
The officers then wrote him a warning for trespassing and ordered him not to return to the store, according to the lawsuit.
Disability Rights NC reached out to authorities in Winston-Salem in January to ask them to remove the trespassing warning, the complaint states. But the city reportedly denied any wrongdoing.
“Civil rights are severely weakened when police departments treat blind shoppers as trespassers based on a store’s discriminatory desire to have them removed for using a guide dog,” said Chris Hodgson with Disability Rights NC, adding, “The WSPD should have known better than to forcibly threaten to arrest a blind shopper for simply using their guide dog, as they did to Mr. Oliva.”
The lawsuit seeks a declaration the city violated federal disability laws as well as damages for Oliva.