$100,000 in Attorney Fees Awarded in Service Animal Dispute

A Florida condominium resident who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was awarded $5,000 in damages by a jury and over $100,000 in attorney fees by the court.[1]

The condominium association had a twenty-five pound weight restriction for dogs.

Ajit Bhogaita, a resident, acquired a dog that exceeded the weight limit. Bhogaita suffered from PTSD after a sexual assault he endured during his military service.

No medical professional initially prescribed the dog.  Nevertheless, Bhogaita’s symptoms improved and he began to rely on the dog to help him manage his condition.  He kept the dog for two years without incident.

About two years later the condominium association demanded Bhogaita remove the dog. Bhogaita then obtained and produced letters from his psychiatrist explaining that the dog was an emotional support animal.

Twice the Association demanded more information, and Bhogaita responded by producing another letter from his psychiatrist. After the third such letter, Bhogaita did not respond for over two months. The Association then sent yet another request for information to include a sworn statement from the psychiatrist providing “specific facts” about Bhogaita’s condition and what individualized training the dog had received.

The Association’s request for information gave a deadline for a response, informed Bhogaita that the notice served as a formal demand to remove the dog if the deadline were not met, threatened legal action, and admonished Bhogaita to “PLEASE GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.” [2]

Bhogaita filed a complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) and the Florida Commission on Human Relations. The Commission issued findings of cause against the Association.

Bhogaita then brought a lawsuit. After a two-day trial the jury returned a verdict in favor of Bhogaita and awarded $5,000 in damages. The court granted over $100,000 in attorney fees. The Association appealed. [3]

The appellate court noted that once a housing provider is made aware of a request for a reasonable accommodation, the provider has an opportunity to make a final determination, which includes the ability to conduct a meaningful review.

An undue delay in responding to a reasonable accommodation request may constitute a failure to accommodate.  For more than six months, the Association had demanded additional information, sometimes making repeat demands for information that had already been provided, and then threatened legal action.  The Court ruled that the Association committed undue delay in investigating the request for accommodation.

In most cases, an individual’s medical records or detailed information about the nature of a person’s disability is not necessary to determine whether an accommodation is required.

The Association demanded information regarding Bhogaita’s treatment, medications, and

the number of counseling sessions he attended per week; details about how the diagnosis was made; whether the condition was permanent or temporary; and details of the prescribed treatment.  The Court found that the Association’s demands for extraneous information were not necessary for it to make a determination of the reasonableness and necessity of the request for an accommodation.

The verdict and attorney fee award were upheld on appeal.

 

[1] The condominium resident was not a tenant, but that has no bearing on the legal issues discussed. The same analysis would apply to a tenant.

[2] Emphasis in original.

[3] Bhogaita v. Altamonte Heights Condominium Ass’n, Inc., 765 F.3d 1277 (2014).

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