A trainer for one of Jacksonville's best known charitable groups -- K9s for Warriors -- is considering legal action after he claims a Southwest Airlines employee forced him to disclose his disability -- a violation of federal law.
Richard Starks says he was flying from San Jose, Calif., to Tampa on Saturday with a layover in Phoenix. As a trainer with the non-profit group, he was traveling with a service dog he was transporting for a victim of the Fort Hood mass shooting when he had to go through a rigorous line of questioning by the airline employee before he was allowed to board the place with the dog.
Starks is a trainer for K9's for Warriors and says he was transporting Stew, one of his newest service dogs. As he tried to board, he says one of the employees started asking a lot of questions about the dog, and wouldn't let him on.
"One of the things that he stated was that he was tired of people passing off fake service dogs and flying their animals for free," Sharks said. "I mean, we have the exact same problem. That's not something we want."
Starks says he told the employee who he was, what he was doing with the dog, and even showed him his service dog ID, but that still didn't work. Eventually, he says he was forced to disclose the details of his own disability -- a violation of HIPPA.
"It’s not acceptable. If I met the guidelines and customer service said I could board, why wasn't I allowed to?" Sharks said. "Honestly, it's affected me a lot worse than I thought it had. I was angry and I was upset."
As a trainer who works every day with service dogs for disabled vets, he says it's a move no one should have to make.
Starks is now deciding if he should file a lawsuit. His attorney says what happened was illegal.
"The violation was forcing him to disclose what his disability was in order to get on the plane," attorney Roslyn Henderson said. "That was made very clear to Mr. Starks, that if he wanted to get on the plane, what he was going to have to do was disclose his disability."
Southwest Airlines provided Channel 4 with a statement about the incident:
"With respect to this particular situation, our information confirms that our employees acted in accordance with our procedures and in compliance with federal regulations. Nevertheless, we regret having disappointed K9s for Warriors and any misunderstanding with regard to our procedures."
In the end, Sharks said a lawsuit wouldn't be about money. He'd rather see something happen that would help make sure something like this doesn't happen to anyone else.
"Our biggest wish would be an education campaign, a PSA, something that educates or, you know, a training program that one of the service dog companies could spearhead. We could spearhead it," he said.