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Blind woman sues Uber over refusal to transport dog

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June 06, 2016

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Blind woman sues Uber

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An Arlington, Virginia, woman is suing ride-hailing giant Uber after she says at least two drivers refused to transport her and her service dog.

In the 29-page suit, Tiffany Jolliff, who is blind, said the company violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Virginians With Disabilities Act in refusing to transport her on at least three occasions.

In one instance last June, an UberX driver refused to pick up Jolliff once the driver realized that she was traveling with her service dog, a yellow Lab named Railey. Jolliff said she was holding the door handle when the driver accelerated. According to the suit, Jolliff, 29, was dragged several feet before she was able to let go.

Friends with whom she had been dining took her to the hospital, where she was told that she had sprained a shoulder. She missed almost a week of work and since then has avoided using Uber, the suit says.

The alleged driver, Albertine Djeumi Cole, is named in the suit. Attempts to reach Cole were unsuccessful.

The suit cited at least two other instances in which UberX drivers allegedly refused to allow Jolliff into their cars once they realized she was traveling with a dog.

“We hope that this case will illustrate the huge obstacles that blind people face in the D.C. metro area just to get from place to place,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, deputy director of litigation for the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Gilbert LLP, which are representing Jolliff. “There is a very bad trend of the rest of society getting access to wonderful technologies to make their lives better, while people who are blind are getting left behind.”

An Uber spokesman could not say whether Cole was still working for the company.

“We were disappointed to learn of this rider’s experience as we are committed to increasing transportation options everywhere for everyone,” Uber said in an emailed statement. “We expect drivers to comply with our Code of Conduct that explicitly states service animals must be accommodated in compliance with accessibility laws.”

Uber officials said the company’s drivers are required to sign the code of conduct, indicating that they understand the expectations.

Uber runs several services, including a black-car luxury service and the lower-cost UberX, in which people use their own cars to give rides to customers who summon them via the company’s app. There is also UberPool, in which a driver can pick up multiple passengers and deliver them to various locations.

The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria. In addition to seeking damages in an amount to be determined at trial, Jolliff is asking that Uber develop a program to educate drivers about the legal obligations to transport passengers who travel with service dogs, provide periodic reminders about those obligations and improve its complaint process.

Jolliff, who works for the Labor Department, said in her suit that she filed complaints with Uber but received only cursory responses. In some instances, Jolliff said, she was charged a $5 cancellation fee even though it was the driver who refused service.

Jolliff’s filing comes a little more than a month after Uber reached an agreement in a 2014 class-action lawsuit filed by the National Federation for the Blind. In the suit, filed in California, the federation said Uber drivers regularly denied rides to blind people with guide dogs. In one instance, the suit said, a driver put a service dog in the trunk and refused to pull over when the passenger, who was blind, became aware of the animal’s location.

As part of the settlement, which is still to be approved, Uber agreed to take steps to ensure that its drivers know they must provide service to people traveling with service dogs. Uber also said it would improve its system for responding to complaints filed by customers who are traveling with service animals.

The company also agreed to pay $225,000 over three years to cover attorneys’ fees and court costs.

Jolliff’s attorneys contend that although the settlement in the class-action lawsuit addresses some of the issues raised in her suit, it does not bar individuals with claims from seeking damages.

As Uber has looked to expand its reach, it has run into questions about whether it does enough to accommodate riders with special needs. This has been a particular issue in the Washington region and other communities that are considering allowing Uber to handle their paratransit services.

Metro is exploring possible partnerships with Uber and its competitor Lyft to introduce an alternative and less-expensive option to MetroAccess, the transit system’s door-to-door service for elderly customers and people with disabilities.

This spring, seven of the nine members of the Montgomery County Council sent a letter to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld opposing the idea.

The council members said Uber and other such services had not done enough to meet the needs of passengers with disabilities. They said the company lacked enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles and questioned whether drivers receive adequate training.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Lori Aratani 

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