HELL'S KITCHEN — A fried chicken and pizza joint has been ordered to pay a lot of dough to a blind customer after a worker told him and his guide dog to leave the slice shop because of a no-pooches-allowed policy.
A city administrative judge ruled last week that the Hell's Kitchen eatery New York City Fried Chicken must pay $10,000 in compensation to the customer and a $10,000 civil penalty for discrimination and violating the city's Human Rights Law, which says that service dogs must be allowed to accompany their disabled owners into businesses.
The city's Human Rights Commission brought the case against the West 39th Street restaurant on behalf of Tommy Gibson, who said he felt humiliated and depressed after a worker told him and his guide dog, Opus, to take their food and leave.
Gibson, a massage therapist who lives in Delaware, told DNAinfo New York that the incident happened two years ago while he was visiting the city with a friend. He said it was the second pizza parlor that day that told him and Opus to scram.
Gibson said he made a formal complaint about both restaurants to the Human Rights Commission because he has many friends with service dogs who live in the city and didn't want them to go through the same experience.
"If this is happening to me, I'm sure it happened to other people," Gibson said. "I'm not going to have anyone else go through the humiliation I went through twice in one day. New York City is supposed to be more progressive-minded."
Gibson testified at an administrative hearing that he and his friend had ordered pizza slices and sodas from New York City Fried Chicken on the afternoon of Dec. 29, 2014, and had brought them to a counter with stools near the storefront window.
Opus, a yellow labrador, settled underneath the counter. The pooch was wearing a harness that says, "please don't feed or flirt with me, working dog."
Gibson said that his friend then stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and to speak to a homeless man who had been knocking on the window. That's when a worker told Gibson and Opus to leave.
"Hey you with the dog, you need to get out of here. No dogs are allowed in my restaurant," an employee said, according to Gibson.
Gibson said he told the employee that Opus was a service dog, offered to show documentation and informed him of the law, but the worker wouldn't budge.
Gibson said when his friend returned, he also had no luck changing the employee's mind. Gibson said he and his friend only left after they finished their meals, but on their way out, the employee shouted, "I don't ever want to see you in my restaurant again."
Gibson said the incident left him embarrassed and unable to sleep.
"All the emotions that I’ve felt with being blind and being different bubbled to the surface," Gibson said. "It made me feel like less of a person."
The city's Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings Judge Noel Garcia wrote in his decision on the case that no representative for New York City Fried Chicken showed up for the trial. Garcia also said that New York City Fried Chicken did not respond to the Human Rights Commission's complaint, nor to several warning letters and calls asking for a response.
However, the judge noted that the Human Rights Commission received one non-verified letter claiming to be from the restaurant's management in 2015. The letter admitted that an employee asked Gibson and Opus to leave, but the request was made because the dog had frightened a child.
Gibson said that at the time, the restaurant had no other customers other than his friend and him.
Gibson, who has been blind since a virus took his vision in 1995, said he got Opus seven years ago from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a service-dog training group in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
"He’s a sweet dog," Gibson said. "The dog doesn’t have a mean bone in his body."
A restaurant worker hung up the phone when he was contacted by DNAinfo New York and asked about the $20,000 judgment. The restaurant has the right to appeal the judge's decision.
Gibson said his other Human Rights Commission complaint against the other Manhattan restaurant that kicked him and Opus out that day has yet to go to trial.