MIAMI — Calling the behavior of a Davie, Florida, condominium association “wrong” and “absurd,” a federal judge has ordered a Davie condominium to allow a disabled resident to keep her service dog.
The two-year dispute will carry a hefty price tag for the Sabal Palm Condominiums: $300,000.
Deborah Fischer, a retired Broward art teacher who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000, was sued by Sabal Palm Condominiums after her dog, Sorenson, moved into her apartment in November 2011. Fischer, who uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her arms and hands, needs Sorenson to pick things, up, open and close doors, and retrieve items from counter tops.
“Sabal Palm got it exactly — and unreasonably — wrong,” U.S. District Judge Scola wrote in his order. “This is not just common sense — though it is most certainly that.”
The condominium complex in Davie’s Pine Island Ridge neighborhood does not allow pets over 20 pounds and demanded medical records and other information to prove that Fischer needed Sorenson — a 5-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix — to help her. Saying Fischer didn’t provide the proper documentation, the condo association sued, according to her attorney, Matthew Dietz of Miami.
Fischer, along with her husband, Larry, counter-sued, saying the condo board’s demands violated the federal Fair Housing Act, or FHA.
Scola agreed with Fischer, and gave the condo board a serious verbal lashing in his 30-page order.
That the condo association “turned to the courts to resolve what should have been an easy decision is a sad commentary on the litigious nature of our society,” Scola wrote in a March 19 order. “And it does a disservice to people like Deborah who actually are disabled and have a legitimate need for a service dog as an accommodation under the FHA.”
In their arguments, board members suggested that even if Fischer needed a service dog, she could have gotten by with an animal that did not weigh more than the Sabal Palm’s 20-pound limit. But, Scola wrote, such a dog would not have been able to meet Fischer’s needs. Sorenson, the judge ruled, was a “reasonable accommodation” to Sabal Palm’s requirements.
“That a blind person may already have a cane, or that he or she could use a cane instead of a dog in no way prevents the blind person from also obtaining a seeing-eye dog as a reasonable accommodation under the FHA,” Scola wrote. “A contrary result is absurd.”
After Scola ruled in the Fischers’ favor, Dietz said he negotiated the $300,000 settlement with the attorney representing Sabal Palm, Karen Nissen.
Nissen did not return calls or an email Tuesday. David Rosinsky, the attorney representing Marvin Silvergold, who was the board president at the time and was sued individually, said the case was “amicably resolved.” A summary judgment against Christopher Trapani, who was the attorney of the association at the time, was denied. Trapani could not be reached for comment.
Fischer said the dispute started in November 2011, when she brought Sorenson home after getting him from Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit group that provides service dogs for people with disabilities. She had sent the complex’s association a letter notifying them that she would be getting a service dog. For five months, Fischer went back and forth with the association.
“I have an obvious disability,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe how hard they were making it.”
Fischer said Sorenson quickly became an important part of her life. He helped her do things she couldn’t do for herself — such as turning the lights in her apartment on and off, picking up TV remotes from coffee tables or counters, or scooping up keys from the floor. The retriever allowed her to perform routine tasks without bothering her husband.
In all, Sorenson can recognize 40 separate commands, Fischer said.
“He has made my life so much better,” she said.
But as the litigation dragged on in court, Fischer said, the drama began to overwhelm her. She had lived in the complex for more than a dozen years, and, suddenly, people she had lived near for years were adversaries in a lawsuit.
“It was very difficult to deal with,” she said.
Fischer’s lawyer said the facts were clear: “This is one of the worst cases like this that I’ve seen,” said Dietz, who specializes in civil rights and disability lawsuits. “It is obvious that the service dog would help her.”
Dietz said a new board has since been elected and the rules have changed. He hopes the case will help others become more sensitive to the needs of disabled people.
Fischer agreed, saying she hopes no one has to go through what she went through.
“I am finally free of the questions, investigations and litigation,” she said. “We are at the point where we can have some peace of mind and finally move forward.”