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Service dog dispute: Surfside Club owner will go to trial

Posted at 6:28 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 19:28:46-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — At a trial, a riverfront bar and restaurant owner will face a charge of denying access to a disabled person.

Mike Walker, owner of Surfside Club, will fight a charge that arose after he was shown on video kicking out Valarie Powell and her dog in May. His business is located north of Omaha along Missouri River.

The trial is scheduled for March 30 in Douglas County Court.

Powell shared cell phone video from that day with 3 News Now Investigators as she pressed the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Omaha City Attorney’s Office to treat the matter seriously.

Walker faces a maximum penalty of three months imprisonment and a $500 fine for the misdemeanor charge of denying access. He faces another misdemeanor of failure to appear from the initial hearing on the matter.

Powell's disabilities affect her balance and reactions to stress. The dog, Bear, is trained to redirect her attention his way as needed, she said.

From July: Local bar said no dogs; owner cited for interfering with service dog

In July, Walker said he has learned his lesson and that he regrets turning them away. He said his bar allows service dogs now and called the video misleading. He said at the time he did what he thought was legal.

For this story, Walker had no comment, saying he'd leave that for the trial.

Powell told 3 News Now she was embarrassed, humiliated and scared.

“He could’ve provoked Bear,” she said. “What if Bear had bitten him? Would I have been in trouble because he put hands on me? … It bothered me so much I could not sleep all night."

Powell said she had to push for charges to be filed in the case. The deputies at Surfside described the issue as a civil matter on video.

Deputies told her at the time they’d note the incident in their logs but not issue a formal sheriff’s report. She says she spent days calling until she got referred to an internal affairs investigator and Chief Deputy Wayne Hudson.

Hudson told KMTV that Walker could not deny service in this case.

Learn more: Surfside Club owner pleads not guilty in denying entry to service dog

Kathy Grafton, with her service dog Puddins in her lap, said Powell isn't alone.

She said Puddins is trained to help with post-traumatic stress disorder by pulling the leash away from a stressful or potentially dangerous situation.

Grafton said she faced a situation similar to Powell's in late November. A manager of an Omaha restaurant kicked her party out because of Puddings, she said.

"(The manager) said 'I don't care. I don't care. You need to get out of here. It's a health code violation to have that dog in here,'" Grafton said.

Police responded to Grafton's incident, but she isn't happy with how police responded.

"(The responding officer) said 'Well, I don't know what the law is around this, so I'm not going to cite him,'" Grafton said.

Like Powell, Grafton said she's followed up with law enforcement. In this case, that's the Omaha Police Department.

Now, police said they're looking into Grafton's matter and following up with the city prosecutor.

Grafton wants business staff and customers to be familiar with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act guidance on service animals.

It says there are two questions business staff can ask of potential service animal owners:

  • Is the animal needed for a disability?
  • What tasks is the animal trained for?

The animal, which can be a dog or mini horse, must be trained in a specific task, and not only an emotional support animal. They don't need to wear identification or be certified. Online sites to buy certification are not officially recognized.

"I think that there are people out there that don't truly have service animals...there for the purposes that they're intended to be there for under the law," Grafton said. "And that makes it difficult for a lot of people that do have them."

Grafton said, despite the law, she often avoids going out into public, or sticks to locations she knows will accept Puddins.

"You don't want to have to feel like you have to call everywhere and ask permission," she said, "And ask 'If I come, are you going to abide by the law?'"

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