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St. Paul Park refinery's ban of service dog violated employee's rights, according to settlement

Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 2/5/2020

Feb. 5--A disabled veteran should have been allowed to bring her service animal to work, the state Department of Human Rights announced Wednesday.

Laura Ritt, New Richmond, Wis., will receive $75,000 from her former employer as part of the settlement of a discrimination suit. The department ruled that Marathon Petroleum Co. discriminated against her by not letting her dog in the office of the St. Paul Park refinery.

Ritt said Wednesday that she relies on the dog, named River, to help with daily tasks and errands. "River goes everywhere with me," she said.

The department ruled in September that Marathon discriminated against Ritt. It announced the details of the settlement Wednesday. Ritt stopped working for Marathon in November.

As part of the settlement agreement, Marathon must provide anti-bias training and anti-discrimination training for employees. The department said Marathon must change its policies so that such discrimination does not occur again.

The $75,000 payment will cover Ritt's lost wages, attorney's costs and damages.

Ritt served from 2004 to 2014 in the U.S. Air Force. She said Wednesday she has post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric condition resulting from various kinds of trauma.

Common symptoms include panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares and sleeplessness. Ritt's symptoms, according to a department memo, include rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, nausea, sweating, and "profound sadness."

Ritt was hired by Marathon in December 2014 as an administrative assistant.

Three years later, she started using the service dog, and asked Marathon to let her bring the animal into the office.

Her argument was bolstered by a nurse practitioner who confirmed her diagnosis, and said that the service animal would prevent Ritt's symptoms from getting worse.

Marathon officials said the dog might pose a safety risk, and that Ritt had worked satisfactorily for three years without it. The company offered alternatives to reduce her stress, including a private office, designated quiet area and changes in her working hours.

Ritt said, according to the department, that "there is no alternative to a service dog that would be beneficial and provide what I am needing."

The dog began living with Ritt in June 2018. It was provided to her at no cost by Believet, a Northfield-based non-profit that trains service dogs for veterans.

"This settlement agreement sends the message that employers have important obligations to provide reasonable accommodations to ensure their employees' dignity," said Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero.

"More Minnesotans with disabilities are working. Yet, disability discrimination in employment continues to be one of the largest areas of discrimination we investigate. That's why we must address discrimination in order to build a more equitable and inclusive Minnesota."

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