Thursday, November 23, 2017

Judge backs woman in flap over service dog

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Calling the behavior of a Davie condominium association "wrong" and "absurd," a federal judge has ordered its association 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.

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. 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."

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.

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