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Originally published May 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 3, 2005 at 12:11 AM

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Woman wins bias case over service dog

Joyce Fischer-Jones is accustomed to people questioning her use of a service dog but was shocked when she and her chow/Labrador mix were...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Joyce Fischer-Jones is accustomed to people questioning her use of a service dog but was shocked when she and her chow/Labrador mix were thrown out of a Ballard convenience store.

Fischer-Jones, who suffers from panic attacks, talked to police after an encounter with the owner of the Wicker Basket. According to Seattle's Office for Civil Rights, the owner grabbed at her and demanded she take the dog outside.

Last week, a city hearing examiner issued a $21,222 judgment against store owner Ho Park.

Park could not be reached for comment last night. He has two weeks to challenge the decision by filing an appeal in King County Superior Court, said Germaine Covington, director of the civil-rights office.

"It is a large sum, but what's large about it is the attorney fees," Covington said, adding that Fischer-Jones will receive only about $5,000 and the rest of the judgment will pay for legal costs.

Fischer-Jones, 47, said people think service dogs are only for the deaf or blind. Before being linked with Sox in 2000, Fischer-Jones' panic attacks and agoraphobia prevented her from leaving her South Seattle apartment.

"I have an unseen disability," said Fischer-Jones, who now works part time as a barista. "I am emotionally disabled, and I don't look it."

Covington said her office often handles similar service-dog discrimination complaints.

"People usually associate the use of a service animal with a lack of sight," Covington said.

With her dog Sox's help, Fischer-Jones said she gained confidence and didn't feel it necessary to periodically check herself into mental-health hospitals. By May 2003, she began volunteering with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).

On the morning of July 23, 2003, Fischer-Jones was craving a cherry Pepsi and headed to a convenience store across the street from NAMI's Ballard office. As she reached for the cooler door, she said, Park grabbed her arm and shoved her. She said he told her dogs were forbidden in the store.

Fischer-Jones said she tried to explain that Sox is a service dog but Park didn't listen. She tied the dog up outside, bought her soda and returned to NAMI. A fellow volunteer called authorities.

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"I couldn't believe what happened. It was a realization of a fear I had," Fischer-Jones said. "I was afraid of people, period, and I was afraid [the dog] was an excuse for somebody to bother me."

In the nearly five years since getting Sox, Fischer-Jones said, she and her doctors have noticed a major change in her behavior.

"I haven't been in a mental-health facility since I got him. Before, I was in and out like a rotating door," said Fischer-Jones, who plans to soon return to school and get her Certified Public Accountant degree. "He is my touchstone to reality. With Sox, when I start panicking, I have to reach out and touch him."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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