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A federal district court has overturned a lower court and reinstated a disability discrimination charge filed by a woman allergic to bee stings whose bee-killing service dog was denied entry to her yacht club.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta held in its ruling Monday in Samantha Ring v. Boca Ciega Yacht Club, Inc. that the Gulfport, Florida-based club was not entitled to private-club exemption in the Americans with Disabilities act.
Samantha Ring, who has severe allergies to bees and sunflower seeds and a history of anaphylactic reactions, has trained her dog, Piper, who has protected her from being stung on seven separate occasions and killed at least one bee, to retrieve her EpiPen and to seek help upon command.
After the yacht club banned the dog for violating its pet policy by bringing him into the clubhouse. Ms. Ring complained to the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights. The club later expelled Ms. Ring on the basis she had lived for three years on her boat at the club, which was prohibited under its rules.
Ms. Ring filed suit against the club in U.S. District Court in Tampa charging violation of the ADA and retaliation. The U.S. District Court ruled in the club’s favor on both charges, holding the yacht club was entitled to exemption from the ADA based on a private club exception in the legislation.
The ruling was overturned by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel. “To qualify for the private-club exception, the club must prove that it ensures its members’ seclusion from others as they enjoy fellowship and camaraderie at its facilities, and viewed in the light most favorable to Ring, the record suggests that it does not,” the decision said.
The record “contains substantial evidence that the Club fails to ensure the seclusion of its members on much of its property and often fails to do so even in its clubhouse.
“Strangers often mix with members in the clubhouse, and the club embraces the presence of non-members at social events, and even government meetings.
“The club’s membership criteria are lax, and it appears from the record that any member of the public who is interested in boating and able to pass a criminal background check is almost guaranteed acceptance,” the ruling said, in overturning the lower court.
The panel did uphold dismissal of the retaliation case, stating its rationale that she had broken the club’s rule in living on her boat was a nondiscriminatory reason for suspending and expelling her.
Attorneys in the case had no comment or did not respond to a request for comment.