Iraq War veteran's service dog trial set to start
By PATRICK DANNER | San Antonio Express-News | Published: March 16, 2015
Wanting his service dog, Goldie, by his side at work to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, decorated Iraq War veteran Juan Alonzo-Miranda asked for the accommodation from his now-former employer, a subsidiary of Houston oil field services giant Schlumberger Ltd.
It took Schlumberger Technology Corp. more than six months to grant Alonzo-Miranda's request, with limits. The two sides are set to square off Monday in a courtroom in San Antonio over whether the company failed to follow federal law dealing with such requests.
It's believed to be the first case of its kind in the country to go to trial: An individual diagnosed with PTSD or similar wartime injuries alleges that a company refused a service dog as a "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Alonzo-Miranda, 33, has sued Schlumberger Technology for back pay, compensatory damages for mental anguish, and unspecified punitive damages. Compensatory damages are capped at $300,000 by law.
Schlumberger spokeswoman Blake Nicole Herbert said in an email that the company does not comment on pending litigation. In a court filing, the company denies that it violated the ADA.
John W. Griffin Jr., a Victoria lawyer representing Alonzo-Miranda, acknowledged that it's not a seven-figure case but said there's a larger issue at stake.
"We want to open the doors for veterans with disabilities who can work in the workplace and overcome wartime injuries," Griffin said. "Service dogs are a way to do that, and we hope this case is ... going to be a beacon for others to follow him."
Alonzo-Miranda served two tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine and one with the Texas National Guard. He was honored for fighting insurgents in some of the war's fiercest combat.
Alonzo-Miranda in late 2010 joined Schlumberger's maintenance facility in Von Ormy, where he performed repairs on large oil field equipment, including well-fracturing trucks and cement trucks.
In spring 2012, Griffin said, Alonzo-Miranda had a panic attack and suicidal thoughts while on the job. Alonzo-Miranda then asked Schlumberger if he could bring his service dog to work. Goldie, a female Labrador mix, 8, had been trained a couple of months earlier by the San Antonio nonprofit Train a Dog-Save a Warrior to notice and respond to Alonzo-Miranda's PTSD. His therapist at the time had recommended he have Goldie trained.
"Without her help, I could not work and enjoy life as I do," Alonzo-Miranda wrote in a 2013 email.
Proponents say a dog's touch can have a calming effect on a veteran with stress.
In court documents, Schlumberger said it needed the doctor treating Alonzo-Miranda's PTSD "to explain why bringing a dog to work was necessary and what other accommodations could be considered."
The company alleges that Alonzo-Miranda delayed providing medical records and hid that his psychiatrist and his psychologist told him they would not support his request to bring the dog to work.
"He kept doctor-shopping until he found a (counselor) to sign off on the request," Schlumberger said in a court filing last month.
Alonzo-Miranda never hid anything, Griffin responded. "He told them there wasn't a doctor who prescribed the dog," he added. Alonzo-Miranda's primary care physician wrote in a "clarifying accommodations form" for Schlumberger that he "can't function (without) his dog." But Schlumberger found the answers in the form "incomplete and vague" and noted that the doctor was not treating Alonzo-Miranda for PTSD.
Both sides in such accommodation matters are "supposed to get together and communicate with each other," said Brian East, senior attorney in Austin for Disability Rights Texas, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. "Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't." He is not involved in the San Antonio dispute.
Each side accuses the other of failing to engage in an "interactive process," as the ADA requires.
In September 2012, about five months after asking for the accommodation, Alonzo-Miranda lodged a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Two months later, the EEOC found that Alonzo-Miranda had been discriminated against because of his disability, in violation of the ADA.
Schlumberger did not engage in an "effective interactive process" and required "excessive medical documentation" from Alonzo-Miranda, an EEOC investigator later wrote to a company lawyer. A copy of the letter was in the court file.
Less than a week later, on Nov. 8, 2012, Alonzo-Miranda appealed to Schlumberger Ltd. CEO Paal Kibsgaard in an email to let Goldie accompany him to work. That same day, Schlumberger's personnel manager notified Alonzo-Miranda that the company had granted his request to bring Goldie to work. He brought the dog to work for the first time Dec. 3, 2012.
"If the accommodation was reasonable on Dec. 3, when the dog was allowed on the premises, why wasn't it reasonable in June (2012)?" Griffin wondered. He said Schlumberger representatives don't have an answer for that question.
Griffin also referenced a Schlumberger human resources representative who testified in a deposition that the company never said permitting Goldie to accompany Alonzo-Miranda to work was "not reasonable."
According to a Schlumberger court filing, Alonzo-Miranda brought Goldie to work for a few months and then stopped, "clearly demonstrating that he never needed the dog in the first place." Griffin said Alonzo-Miranda stopped bringing Goldie to work because she had cancer and required surgeries.
Alonzo-Miranda sued Schlumberger in November 2013 over the approximately six-month period leading up to Dec. 3, 2012, when he didn't have permission to bring Goldie to work. The lawsuit also says that once he was allowed to bring her, he was required to use a side door rather than the front door and was denied access to the break room while with Goldie.
Alonzo-Miranda was terminated last April for what Schlumberger says was poor behavior. Among other things, it accused him of forwarding a racist text to a co-worker. Griffin said Alonzo-Miranda didn't know that the Facebook post he forwarded contained racist content. He added that Alonzo-Miranda was never counseled over the incident, as the company's anti-harassment policy requires. Other employees who committed worse conduct were given multiple warnings and opportunities to correct their behavior, Griffin said.
The lawsuit was later amended to allege that Alonzo-Miranda's termination was in retaliation for suing Schlumberger. But a judge in December tossed the claim, holding that sufficient evidence wasn't presented to support the allegations.
Alonzo-Miranda now works as a mortgage claims processor -- and Goldie accompanies him to work.
The jury trial before Senior U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth is expected to last three to four days.
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