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Federal trial begins in railroad engineer’s service dog case

Saline County man’s suit claims railroad committed disability discrimination by Dale Ellis | July 13, 2021 at 6:53 a.m.
Perry Hopman plays with his service dog, Atlas, outside his home in Benton on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Atlas is trained to help Perry ward off panic attacks, anxiety, and flashbacks on the job as a result of his PTSD while serving as a U.S. Army flight medic. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Stephen Swofford)

A federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a Saline County man alleging job discrimination by the Union Pacific Railroad got underway Monday in Little Rock with jury selection and opening statements by an attorney for the plaintiff.

Perry Hopman, 45, of Benton, filed suit in federal court on Jan. 26, 2018, after officials with Union Pacific refused his request in 2015 that his service dog be allowed to accompany him to work at the North Little Rock railyard where he works as an engineer traveling on overnight runs to Van Buren in Crawford County.

Hopman, an Army veteran and a former flight medic, was diagnosed in 2008 with post-traumatic stress disorder following an 18-month deployment to Iraq. He's also a survivor of a subsequent traumatic brain injury that occurred during a 2010 deployment to Kosovo with the National Guard, worsening his PTSD.

The dog, a Rottweiler named Atlas, is a trained service dog who can sense Hopman's anxiety levels and "ground" him by sitting on his feet, as a weighted blanket can calm an autistic child. He is trained to remind Hopman to take his medicine, keep crowds away, block anyone approaching from behind, notify his master when a migraine is coming, find the closest exit in a building, pick up and retrieve items, wake Hopman from nightmares and even force him out of the house when he is being too reclusive.

Union Pacific denied Hopman's request, saying it was unclear how a dog would react to dangerous conditions at the railyard such as moving cars and locomotives; that there was no infrastructure to support a dog on a train or on overnight trips that Hopman's conductor job sometimes required; and that the dog could pose a risk to other employees.

At the time, Atlas hadn't completed his 18-month service dog training. But after the training was completed in April 2017, Hopman again sought permission to bring Atlas to work with him. This time, he cited the dog's training that was designed, among other things, to keep him focused on his service duties in varied environments, and even to go without a potty break for 14 hours, if necessary.

After Union Pacific officials again denied his request, Hopman filed the lawsuit alleging that the railroad was subjecting him to disability discrimination in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to a complaint filed by Hopman's attorneys in 2018, Union Pacific officials never met with Hopman in person to discuss his service-connected disabilities, never asked for any information regarding PTSD or service dogs and never conducted an individual assessment of Hopman's accommodation request.

The only accommodation the railroad offered, the complaint said, was to move him to a lower paying position in the railyard.

Presiding over the trial is U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker. In May 2020, Baker denied a motion by Union Pacific for summary judgment, saying disputed facts about the railroad's assertions that Hopman's request wasn't necessary or reasonable must be decided by a jury.

After questioning 31 potential jurors during 3 hours and 15 minutes of voir dire, a jury consisting of eight women and four men was empanelled shortly after 1:30 p.m. Following a break for lunch, Baker gave the jurors initial instructions, admonishing the panel to avoid talking about the case, doing any research on the case or any of the people involved in it, and to avoid any news accounts that may be published during the trial.

"If you still get an old-fashioned newspaper you can get someone to clip out the stories, set them aside and save them for you," Baker said. "If, like most of us, you receive an iPad that has it electronically, then make sure you avoid articles about this case, skip over those articles, don't click on them or read them."

John Griffin of Victoria, Texas, one of Hopman's attorneys, spent about 45 minutes outlining the case against Union Pacific, saying that internal documents to be presented into evidence would demonstrate that officials there never intended to make any accommodation for Hopman's disability.

He said testimony to that effect would be offered both by pre-recorded video and by live witnesses in the courtroom.

"You're going to hear in this trial what the railroad did to one of its own valued employees," Griffin said. He said that despite positive evaluations from superiors and reviews from co-workers attesting to Hopkins' reliability and work ethic, railroad officials violated their legal duty to give his request for accommodation a fair hearing, but instead decided without a hearing to deny the request while making Hopkins think it was being given serious consideration.

In an interview last year with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Griffin said the case is the first in the country involving the refusal of Union Pacific, the country's largest railroad, to allow conductors and engineers to use a service dog to combat symptoms of PTSD and that he hopes the case "will open up a lot of doors for other workers."

Griffin tried another case in 2015 in San Antonio in which the jury found that Schlumberger Technology Corp. violated federal law by failing to reasonably accommodate an Iraq war veteran's PTSD by waiting six months to let the mechanic bring his service dog to work, and then restricting the dog's movements. The jury awarded the veteran about $28,000 in compensatory damages but declined to award punitive damages.

Hopman's attorneys are seeking a court order requiring the Union Pacific Railroad to allow Atlas on the job, damages to compensate Hopman for different jobs he did to avoid being away from home overnight without Atlas, and attorneys' fees.

Union Pacific has denied that Hopman suffered any loss in pay.

Attorneys for Union Pacific will present their opening statement at 9 a.m. this morning after which Hopman's attorneys will present their case. The trial is expected to last at least through Friday.

Information for this article was contributed by Linda Satter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: Trial in Union Pacific job case begins


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