State officials announce settlement with business owners who had legally blind man, guide dog leave store

TRENTON — Acting Attorney General John Hoffman and the Division on Civil Rights announced Thursday, Dec. 18 that the operators of a Trenton retail store  have agreed to pay a legally blind man $1,500 and undergo training in civil rights law to resolve allegations that they discriminated by asking the man and his guide dog to leave the store.

Harshad Desai and Daksha Desai, owner-operators of Navgrah, LLC,  doing business as the Mark Variety Store,  also must permanently display a sign near the entrance of their store informing customers and visitors that service dogs and guide dogs are welcome.

The settlement resolves an Oct. 2012 incident in which Yvonne Ware, a Trenton resident who is legally blind, entered the Mark Variety Store with his guide dog and was asked to leave.

Both sides agree that Ware previously had shopped in the store accompanied by the guide dog without being asked to exit. However, the store owners told Division investigators that, on Oct. 20, 2012, their shop was uncommonly busy with customers buying lottery tickets for a major drawing that evening. They claimed Ware was asked to wait outside with his guide dog to ensure a safe environment for himself, the dog and customers in the store. They also recalled offering to bring Ware any merchandise he wished to purchase.

Ware, however, told Division investigators the store was not crowded, but instead had “maybe two customers” in it during the incident. Ware said neither he nor his guide dog had ever given the owners reason to fear they would cause a disruption or safety risk. Nonetheless, Ware said, he was told his guide dog was no longer allowed in the store, and was given no explanation for the store’s apparent change in policy.

Ware’s guide dog was trained at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. Guiding Eyes is a non-profit guide dog school that, among other things, provides the blind and visually impaired with trained guide dogs, as well as training in how to use guide dogs.

Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination,  any person with a disability accompanied by a service dog or guide dog trained by a recognized agency or school is entitled, along with his or her dog, “to the full and equal enjoyment, advantages, facilities and privileges” of all public facilities.

Hoffman said the Mark Variety Store case, coupled with a similar settlement announced earlier this year involving a sandwich shop in Bloomfield, demonstrates that the State takes seriously the issue of access for disabled persons who use guide or service dogs.

“It is important that business owners and others with authority to control access to places of public accommodation understand that access for persons with disabilities, when they are accompanied by a properly trained guide or service dog, is not discretionary. It is the law,” said Hoffman.  “In New Jersey, a person accompanied by a trained service animal is as entitled as anyone else to enter and utilize a public facility. We are committed to ensuring that right, and to holding accountable anyone who attempts to deny it.”

In addition to paying Ware $1,500, the Mark Variety Store owners have agreed to host a Division on Civil Rights training session on the requirements of the LAD regarding service animals. Such training is to include a sensitivity training component designed to enhance future interactions between the owners or their employees and persons using a guide or service dog.

Investigator J. Manuel Castillo handled the matter on behalf of the Division on Civil Rights.