She was verbally abused, threatened and stranded by drivers. Now Lisa Irving’s attorneys believe an arbitrator’s $1.1 million award is the largest ever for disability discrimination against a single blind complainant.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — For Lisa Irving, a legally blind woman determined to live on her own terms, Uber rides were often a lifeline, helping her get to work, socialize and run errands.
But it would quickly turn into a nightmare any time drivers would pull up, take one look at her guide dog Bernie, and unleash a torrent of invective.
“Drivers took their anger out on me. They vented that they hadn’t been informed, they vented that they didn’t have to take me and my service dog and they said some very nasty and demeaning stuff,” Irving said in a phone interview.
For over three years, Irving documented some 60 instances of harassment and disability discrimination, lodging dozens of complaints with Uber because drivers knowingly denied her rides because she uses a service animal.
Now the ride-hail giant owes $1.1 million under a ruling issued by independent arbitrator and retired judge Rudy Gerber, who found the company liable for discrimination under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
“I have not seen a single claimant or plaintiff case with damages in this amount and I’m fairly active in the disability rights bar,” her attorney Jana Eisinger said in an interview, adding it may not have been possible without Irving’s meticulous documentation of at least 50, if not 60, ride denials she reported to Uber.
These kinds of awards are “very rare” Eisinger said, and Irving’s case is all the more unique not only because of the sheer number of incidents, but because many were so appalling that Gerber was able to award her far more than the $4,000 minimum per incident to which she is entitled under California law.
A state court judge must now confirm the award.
“We’re very hopeful that this will send a strong message to Uber and cause them to change their practices, so this doesn’t continue to happen to more blind and visually impaired people who are just trying to get from point A to point B,” Eisinger said.
While Eisinger estimated that Irving reported 50-60 incidents to Uber, they chose the 14 that were the strongest.
Irving said acts of discrimination against the blind are common. She reads about them every day on Facebook.
“I hope I’m doing some good for my people” by speaking out, she said. “One act of discrimination is one act too many.”
Although disabled passengers are not required to tell Uber drivers that they have service dogs, Irving said she would notify her drivers by text that she had Bernie with her to try head off any potential rancor.
“I did it because I was sick of the verbal abuse and I thought it might help,” she said. “And it really didn’t.”
In one instance, a livid driver threatened to abandon Irving and Bernie on the side of a freeway near some bushes.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” Irving said. “I thought, OK, it’s not safe for me to get out of the car so I have to de-escalate.” Irving says she has some training in de-escalation techniques and was eventually able to make it to her destination safely. But she still has “a physical reaction when I think about this instance.”
On another occasion, a driver made her late for work by initially refusing to let Irving into the car with Bernie, straining her relationship with her employer.
Irving, whose work in mental health counseling took her all over the San Diego area, was scheduled to meet a co-worker that day at a work site.
“I was crying. I was begging him to please take me,” Irving said. Teenagers who witnessed the incident intervened and tried to reason with the driver. “It was humiliating to be brought to tears and vexing to miss my shift,” Irving said. “I feel like I let my co-worker down because I couldn’t meet him.”
She also remembers the Christmas Eve when she was so excited to be able to call an Uber to take her and another visually impaired friend to Christmas Eve services.
“It felt good that I didn’t have to rely on anyone to pick me up for Christmas Eve service. I could just call an Uber,” she said. They decided to leave Bernie at home and just take her friend’s guide dog, another measure to ward off conflict.
But instead the driver left them stranded in a chilly San Diego downpour, forcing Irving to call Uber’s now-defunct emergency help line for disabled passengers. “For me, the celebration of Christmas and Christmas Eve is important to my spiritual beliefs,” she said. “It was horrible to have to do a mad scramble.”
Irving said she’s confident drivers would have been less hostile to Bernie had Uber done a better job of training drivers on their rights and responsibilities to disabled passengers, and if they had made their training materials available to its vast array of drivers who speak languages other than English.
Gerber found Irving is entitled to $324,000 for the 14 “egregious” incidents he considered, nixing Uber’s argument that it doesn’t exert sufficient control over its drivers to be liable for their conduct.
He noted Uber acknowledged it understood its obligations under the ADA and still “allowed drivers who discriminated against disabled riders to continue driving without discipline.”
He awarded another $805,000 in fees and costs, which he wrote “though high, reflects the high quality of legal work done in this case.”
Uber did not respond to an email seeking comment by press time.
Irving said she hasn’t been denied a single ride since she started using a cane rather than a service dog in August 2019. She just took a Lyft ride Tuesday and didn’t have a problem.
As for Bernie, who Irving describes as a “very phlegmatic” and aged golden retriever, he’s newly retired.
“He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. It was time for him to enjoy some time not being a working dog. He lives out of state with some friends of mine, living the life of Riley,” she said.
Irving said she’s currently using a cane as Covid-19 has stalled training at Guide Dogs for the Blind and other schools. But, she said, “I will be getting another guide dog.”