A disabled U.S. Army veteran wounded in the Iraq War has sued the federal government, arguing her Raleigh-based employer harassed her for using a German shepherd service dog at work, requiring her to keep the animal leashed and surround her desk with a baby gate.
Seantoya Hinton, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied her request to work from home though people working similar jobs were allowed to do so.
Hinton also said her supervisor retaliated when she contacted an equal-employment opportunity officer at work, then created a hostile work environment by encouraging other employees to spy on her and slamming the baby gate closed.
Hinton seeks a new position with equal responsibilities and pay, lost salary and benefits and damages for mental suffering.
“Ms. Hinton has suffered and continues to suffer economic loss, loss of personal dignity and self-esteem, emotional distress, pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life and other non-pecuniary damages,” the lawsuit said.
Roughly 20% of all U.S. troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, according to the Veterans Affairs National Center. In December, the Postal Service issued a “Healing PTSD” stamp at Charlotte’s McGlohon Theater. A dime from every 65-cent stamp —10 cents higher than normal postage — goes to research.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, hinges on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids discrimination based on disability. Hinton fractured both feet when an IED exploded under her Army vehicle in 2003, requiring multiple reconstructive surgeries.
Service dog recommended
Hinton developed PTSD symptoms in 2013 and, after therapy, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, the suit said. A social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs recommended a service dog in 2015, and Hinton was paired up with “RJ” to elevate her mood.
Starting in 2014, Hinton began work as the USDA office manager over all state plant health offices in North and South Carolina. Her supervisor, state Plant Heath Director Joseph Beckwith, referred questions to a public affairs official in Maryland, who did not immediately respond.
She worked a “maxiflex” schedule allowing flexible hours for medical appointments, and was originally approved for telecommuting time during surgeries and then every Wednesday, the suit said.
“RJ would sit by Ms. Hinton’s desk while she worked and would walk beside her as she moved around the office to complete various tasks,” the suit said. “The Agency placed no restrictions or conditions on her use of her service animal while she worked in the office.”
In 2018, Beckwith presented an “agreement” for Hinton to sign: RJ would be on a leash, crated or restrained at all times, and three violations would get him banned from the office. Hinton felt she had to sign the agreement, the suit said, but she filed a grievance with her union.
“While using the copier,” the suit said, “Ms. Hinton must use both hands, making it impossible to keep RJ’s leash in her hand at all times. Additionally, if RJ was restrained inside Ms. Hinton’s workstation, if she were to fall, RJ would not be able to get to her.”
Shortly after, the suit said, Hinton’s request to work remotely was denied, and her cubicle was enlarged and surrounded by the gate.
“As trained, RJ did not leave Ms. Hinton’s workstation or otherwise roam the office,” the suit said. “Ms. Hinton explained to Mr. Beckwith that slamming the gate triggered her PTSD symptoms, causing mood swings, anxiety and panic attacks. Mr. Beckwith continued to slam the gate closed with no regard to Ms. Hinton’s disability.”
Hinton made an informal complaint with her EEO office, and shortly afterward, learned from Beckwith that she had violated RJ’s agreement. When he told her she would be placed on administrative leave, the suit said, she called the Wounded Warrior Suicide Hotline. She was not suicidal, the suit said, but needed to talk with someone.
In January, the suit said, after much back-and-forth, she was told to resign or return to her job with a “doctor’s letter indicating she is able to perform the essential functions of her job, per her job description, without being a danger to herself or others.”
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