Florida Keys

She was turned away from a Keys vacation rental and says a service dog was the reason

David W. Hemenway and his daughter Rebekah pose with her service dog, Bilbo Baggins, at their Virginia home.
David W. Hemenway and his daughter Rebekah pose with her service dog, Bilbo Baggins, at their Virginia home.

Nancy Hemenway often gets questions about her daughter’s service dog, a 92-pound golden retriever raised for the job since he was a pup.

People want to know where she got the dog’s vest so they can buy one.

“I tell them, ‘It comes with neurological problems,’ “ Hemenway said. “As much as we love our service dog, I would give anything if we didn’t need him.”

Hemenway’s struggles with traveling with her daughter’s service dog, Bilbo Baggins, is at the center of a lawsuit she filed July 5 against a Keys couple and vacation-rental service HomeAway.com.

She is suing Tom and Shari Ruchalski and HomeAway.com in U.S. District Court in Key West, accusing them all of discrimination by not allowing her to rent a vacation home because of her daughter’s service dog.

The Ruchalskis — who own Blue Palms, a three-bedroom home going for $314 a night on VRBO.com, which is owned by the same company as HomeAway, Expedia — refunded her deposit and turned her away after an email exchange about the service dog that her daughter relies on.

bluepalms.jpg
This Grassy Key vacation rental is at the center of a lawsuit that alleges a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by its owners. HomeAway

The Americans with Disabilities Act covers service animals, defined in federal law as only dogs or miniature horses, while the Fair Housing Act is specific to housing and temporary lodging that service animals are allowed and also covers “emotional support animals,” which applies to anything living that doesn’t pose a direct threat to others or property.

“The main question is whether it is housing or a place of temporary lodging,” said Matthew Dietz, litigation director for the Disability Independence Group in Miami. “To the extent that HomeAway rents out facilities for more than a few days, then it may be considered housing.”

HomeAway didn’t return three emails seeking comments. A call to its service center referred a reporter to the same email address.

The Ruchalskis deny any discrimination and say they didn’t want to rent to Hemenway because they found her to be difficult and believed she would continue to bring up other issues while staying at Blue Palms. Hemenway only told them of the service dog after they had accepted the reservation and the Ruchalskis then asked for a $1,000 deposit.

Tom Ruchalski said he wants to follow all laws but isn’t clear on how ADA relates to rentals of private homes.

“I cannot find any definitive answer,” he said. “If there is one, I would like to know about it.”

Bilbo Baggins, named after the protagonist in “The Hobbit,” is a service dog with documentation from his trainer. But no dog owner needs any piece of paper to prove a dog is a service animal, under ADA law.

Bilbo, however, is specifically trained to protect and care for Rebekah, Hemenway’s 18-year-old daughter who has epilepsy and neurological issues.

The Hemenways raised $14,000 to pay half of what it cost to train him. A nonprofit helped with the rest. Training a service dog can run more than $40,000, according to 4 Paws for Ability, an Ohio-based nonprofit that places service dogs with children worldwide.

So when, as Hemenway tells it, a Grassy Key couple refused to accommodate the family by welcoming Bilbo the mother felt like she had to do something.

“This is not my first rodeo,” Hemenway said. “People deny access all the time to people with service dogs.”

The Virginia family, after being turned away by two other vacation-rental owners, found a place to rent in Grassy Key eight miles away from the Dolphin Research Center, where Rebekah will attend a five-day program to improve her communication abilities. The other homes were much closer, including one just a block away.

“They all made a big deal out of the service dog,” she said. “Which is why I’ll never tell anyone again.”

In her email explaining to Tom Ruchalski the necessity of Bilbo, she says many people lie about service animals but she not only has documentation but gets the dog re-certified each year.

“I gave him much more information than I needed to give him,” Hemenway said. “Instead, what I got was a slap in the face.”

That isn’t what happened, says Ruchalski.

Ruchalski said he welcomed the service dog and was only hesitant to rent to Hemenway because of what he describes as aggressive emails that came from her and the dog’s trainer and eventually threatened legal action.

“She was the problem,” said Ruchalski, who hadn’t seen the lawsuit until a reporter provided him with a copy. “I don’t know what she’s suing us for.”

Ruchalski did ask for a larger deposit — $1,000, which was twice what the original deposit was — but he was willing to discuss the matter further with Hemenway.

“She told me that’s against the law,” he said. “I didn’t know. We don’t want to violate any laws.”

He also said he didn’t have to comply with ADA because Blue Palms isn’t a business, the suit says.

Ruchalski says his own two dogs are not allowed inside Blue Palms.

His concerns about the dog staying in his rental came from thinking of other renters who want to know if dogs have been inside the home because they are allergic to them. Ruchalski said he would be willing to refund the deposit if everything worked out.

Ruchalski said Hemenway threatened to sue him rather than hash out a solution. In the end, he wasn’t comfortable with renting to her due to her behavior, not because of the service dog, he said.

ADA doesn’t cover emotional support animals and allows a business owner to ask the animal’s owner two questions: whether the assistance animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.

HomeAway doesn’t list a service-animal policy on its website and VRBO only has a “pet policy,” without mentioning ADA laws.

Ruchalski said at first HomeAway contacted him to say he was breaking the rules and his rental ad had to come down. But he said after he sent Hemenway’s email exchange the company said he was fine to continue renting on HomeAway.

In contrast, AirBnB has an explicit policy on service animals — which it defines as dogs — welcoming “assistance animals” even if they are so-called emotional support animals.

But AirBnB says it won’t make an owner rent to someone whose service dog is not housebroken or is “out of control,” without the handler dealing with it, or if there is a health or safety risk, such as allergies.

Citing its “nondiscrimination policy,” the company’s policy reads that hosts “are expected to reasonably accommodate reservations where an assistance animal may be present, even if their listing/house rules state ‘no pets.’ No fees may be charged for these animals.”

Hemenway said of service dogs and support animals: “A lot of people don’t know the difference . An emotional support animal can basically be any animal.”

Those who lie about having service dogs or emotional support animals — to get out of extra airline fees, land an apartment, or dodge no-animals-allowed rules — only hurt those who need them for medical or psychological assistance, Hemenway said.

“It’s hard to travel with my daughter because she has so many neurological issues,” Hemenway said. “He’s such a sweetheart, too. He doesn’t bark except on command.”

The Ruchalskis, in their last email to Hemenway during the rental process, said they “would have liked to have a discussion about this instead of what they perceived as threats and accusations.

“Again, we did not cancel the reservation because of the service dog, we were OK with that,” they wrote. “We canceled because we did not feel comfortable that the primary renter could be reasonable if any other issues arose.”

This story was updated to clarify the fact that no one needs documentation to prove a dog is a service animal under ADA rules.

Army and National Guard veteran Richard Parker of Pascagoula introduces his dogs, one a certified service animal and the other one ‘in training.’ Both help the veteran cope with the PTSD three combat tours have left him with.

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