Nancy Hemenway often gets questions about her daughterâs service dog, a 92-pound golden retriever raised for the job since he was a pup.
People want to know where she got the dogâs vest so they can buy one.
âI tell them, âIt comes with neurological problems,â â Hemenway said. âAs much as we love our service dog, I would give anything if we didnât need him.â
Hemenwayâs struggles with traveling with her daughterâs 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 daughterâs service dog.
The Ruchalskis â 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 â refunded her deposit and turned her away after an email exchange about the service dog that her daughter relies on.
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 âemotional support animals,â which applies to anything living that doesnât pose a direct threat to others or property.
âThe main question is whether it is housing or a place of temporary lodging,â said Matthew Dietz, litigation director for the Disability Independence Group in Miami. âTo the extent that HomeAway rents out facilities for more than a few days, then it may be considered housing.â
HomeAway didnât 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 didnât 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 isnât clear on how ADA relates to rentals of private homes.
âI cannot find any definitive answer,â he said.. âIf there is one, I would like to know about it.â
Bilbo Baggins, named after the protagonist in âThe Hobbit,â is a legitimate service dog with proper documentation. He is the type of service animal that is protected by the ADA. He is trained to protect and care for Rebekah, Hemenwayâs 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.
âThis is not my first rodeo,â Hemenway said. âPeople deny access all the time to people with service dogs.â
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.
âThey all made a big deal out of the service dog,â she said. âWhich is why Iâll never tell anyone again.â
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.
âI gave him much more information than I needed to give him,â Hemenway said. âInstead, what I got was a slap in the face.â
That isnât 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 dogâs trainer and eventually threatened legal action.
âShe was the problem,â said Ruchalski, who hadnât seen the lawsuit until a reporter provided him with a copy. âI donât know what sheâs suing us for.â
Ruchalski did ask for a larger deposit â $1,000, which was twice what the original deposit was â but he was willing to discuss the matter further with Hemenway.
âShe told me thatâs against the law,â he said. âI didnât know. We donât want to violate any laws.â
He also said he didnât have to comply with ADA because Blue Palms isnât 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 wasnât comfortable with renting to her due to her behavior, not because of the service dog, he said.
ADA doesnât cover emotional support animals and allows a business owner to ask the animalâs 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 doesnât list a service-animal policy on its website and VRBO only has a âpet policy,â 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 Hemenwayâs email exchange the company said he was fine to continue renting on HomeAway.
In contrast, AirBnB has an explicit policy on service animals â which it defines as dogs â welcoming âassistance animalsâ even if they are so-called emotional support animals.
But AirBnB says it wonât make an owner rent to someone whose service dog is not housebroken or is âout of control,â without the handler dealing with it, or if their is a health or safety risk, such as allergies.
Citing its ânondiscrimination policy,â the companyâs policy reads that hosts âare expected to reasonably accommodate reservations where an assistance animal may be present, even if their listing/house rules state âno pets.â No fees may be charged for these animals.â
Hemenway said of service dogs and support animals: âA lot of people donât know the difference . An emotional support animal can basically be any animal.â
Those who lie about having service dogs or emotional support animals â to get out of extra airline fees, land an apartment, or dodge no-animals-allowed rules â only hurt those who need them for medical or psychological assistance, Hemenway said.
âItâs hard to travel with my daughter because she has so many neurological issues,â Hemenway said. âHeâs such a sweetheart, too. He doesnât bark except on command.â
The Ruchalskis, in their last email to Hemenway during the rental process, said they âwould have liked to have a discussion about this instead of what they perceived as threats and accusations.
âAgain, we did not cancel the reservation because of the service dog, we were OK with that,â they wrote. âWe canceled because we did not feel comfortable that the primary renter could be reasonable if any other issues arose.â