Nashville-area Uber drivers are learning more about their responsibilities to passengers who travel with service dogs.
That’s because of a rare court case in Rutherford County — and new nationwide guidance from the ride-hailing service itself. Both are nearing completion and raising awareness.
The case in Murfreesboro surfaced in April.
James Boehm, a Middle Tennessee State University graduate, said he had started choosing Uber for some trips across town with his guide dog, Shep, a German shepherd.
While waiting for a pickup outside the veterinarian’s office one afternoon, he said he sensed something was wrong. Because he is blind, Boehm uses smartphone technology that vocalizes what is happening on his phone screen.
He knew his driver had arrived.
“I hear someone yell, they said, ‘You’re going to have to get another driver … I don’t want that dog in my car,’ ” Boehm told WPLN.
He began to ask why, and noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects service animal users.
“And she literally squealed her tires and took off. And I’m just standing there like, ‘Wow, did that just happen?’ ” he said.
A First In Rutherford
As a local leader closely involved with the National Federation of the Blind, Boehm knows the law intimately. He has taught advocacy classes for service animal users and courses for business owners about how to accommodate Tennesseans with disabilities.
While a bystander came to Boehm’s aid on the day he lost his Uber ride, he followed up with a complaint against the driver — through the app and to local police.
That led to a misdemeanor charge for denial of service against driver Rolonda Douglas.
The case is a first for the county, said District Attorney Jennings Jones.
“Quite frankly, I’ve never had this type of case come up before,” he said. “We had to check the law to make sure we had a good understanding of what it said.”
The Class C misdemeanor could lead to 30 days in jail. Authorities wouldn’t comment on the possible outcome of the case, but Boehm said discussions in court last week point to a possible $50 fine and community service.
Boehm said that conclusion would show accountability. As importantly, he said he wants the case to raise awareness for other drivers, and for the authorities.
“People in the community now know that this is happening and they’re educated as to what the law is,” he said. “A lot of this was new to them. They are now fully versed.”
Boehm’s case came to light just as Uber was settling a class-action lawsuit in California over guide dog discrimination. The National Federation for the Blind (NFB) brought the case, saying that ride-hailing could greatly benefit people with disabilities, but only so long as they are fairly served.
Uber has agreed to train its drivers, remove violators and collect data. And the NFB will periodically test Uber's compliance by sending service animal users into the field.
“We hear about stuff all the time, unfortunately, and it’s occurring everywhere,” Boehm said. “You can do a Google search … you’ll just get tons of incidents and stories.”
Boehm, 35, recently moved to Nashville, where he’s pursuing a clinical counseling master’s degree from Vanderbilt University.