Blind Woman Goes to Court After Torrance Eatery Barred Guide Dog
When Lucia Gobel was told she could not bring her guide dog into the Numero Uno Pizzeria in Torrance, it was not the first time she felt discriminated against because she is blind.
But when she called police and they refused to get involved, Gobel decided to stand up for her rights.
Last month, Gobel, a 36-year-old resident of Hawthorne, filed a $25,000 claim against the city of Torrance and a separate suit asking for unspecified damages against the managers and the franchiser of the pizzeria at 21141 Hawthorne Blvd.
“I don’t want to make a big deal out of this,” she said in an interview, “but I want to stop people from discriminating against blind people.”
The suit, which was filed in Torrance Superior Court on Aug. 12, also asks for a permanent injunction prohibiting all Numero Uno pizzerias and their local franchiser, Van Nuys-based Gelet Enterprises Inc., from maintaining any policy of refusing service to blind persons with guide dogs.
Ronald Gelet, president of the franchiser, called the matter an “isolated incident” and said it is not a company policy to refuse service to blind or physically handicapped people. He said the company trains all restaurant owners to be aware of laws pertaining to the handicapped, he said.
Torrance Police Sgt. Ronald Trader acknowledged that the officers were unaware of the law and said they should have enforced it. He called it “just one of those unfortunate situations.”
City Manager LeRoy Jackson could not be reached for comment on the claim.
According to Gobel’s suit, the incident took place about 7 p.m. May 1 when she and her guide dog, Kincaid, went to the restaurant for dinner with a friend. When Gobel and the 6-year-old golden retriever entered, Meichung Lee, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Leng Shi Lee, told her that the dog had to stay outside, Gobel said.
Gobel, who has had Kincaid for five years, said she tried to explain that California law gives blind people and their guide dogs access to all places open to the public, but Meichung Lee refused to allow the dog in. When Gobel asked to use the restaurant’s pay phone to call police, Lee refused, forcing her to use a public phone on the street, Gobel said.
Unaware of Law
Torrance Police Officers Richard Carr and Steven Badenoch arrived soon afterward and, unaware of the 1968 law, told Gobel they could do nothing to help her. Gobel said the officers told her it was a civil matter.
“I had a little card on me that explains the law and one that identifies me, but I was so nervous that I could not find them,” Gobel said. “I was very surprised that the police did not know the law.”
The claim against the city charges that police inflicted “distress, mental anguish and humiliation” when they failed to charge the restaurant owner with a violation of a state law.
“It just added salt to the wound when the police didn’t help,” said Miriam Lebental, Gobel’s attorney. “It made it look like she was at fault when she was in fact the victim.”
Gobel said Officer Carr called her a week later and apologized after learning of the law.
The suit claims that the Lees intentionally discriminated against Gobel on the basis of her disability and caused her “humiliation, embarrassment and degradation.” It also charges Gelet Enterprises with setting up guidelines and training that led to the incident.
The Lees would not comment on the suit and their attorney could not be reached.
Turned Away Before
Gobel, who will start work in two weeks as a social worker in a clinic, said that supermarkets, video rental stores, beauty parlors and other restaurants have also refused to allow her and her guide dog into their businesses. But after the pizzeria incident, she said she had “had enough.”
Ignorance of the guide dog law is “real common, too common,” said Liz Morosco, a spokeswoman for Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., a San Rafael-based company that has trained guide dogs for about 106 people in Los Angeles County.
Morosco said the law is relatively unknown because only 5% of the blind use guide dogs. Because of the care, responsibility and expense required to have a dog, most blind people prefer using a cane or other means to get around.
Most business owners, she said, don’t know that the dogs are well-trained.
“They will not chew on tables, jump on people or defecate on the rug,” she said. “These are very, very gentle animals.”
Gobel has become very attached to Kincaid, Lebental said. “Taking her dog away would have been like taking a crutch away from a crippled person.”