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Disabled Pasco woman sues nudist community over service dog

Sharon Fowler hugs her service dog, Laura, at her home in Paradise Lakes. Fowler is legally blind and depends on Laura to get around but says she’s been harassed because the dog exceeds Paradise Lakes Resort’s weight limit.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Sharon Fowler hugs her service dog, Laura, at her home in Paradise Lakes. Fowler is legally blind and depends on Laura to get around but says she’s been harassed because the dog exceeds Paradise Lakes Resort’s weight limit.

LUTZ — At Paradise Lakes Resort, the rules for clothing are loose. In fact, there are no rules for clothing — it's optional.

The rules for pets? More restrictive.

According to a lawsuit filed last year and a subsequent appeal, animals more than 25 pounds violate the condominium association's rules, and must be "registered at the condominium office."

Sharon Fowler, a resident, has a black Labrador named Laura, who weighs well over the threshold. The condo association had a problem with this, and sent a letter telling Fowler to get rid of the dog, or move out. Fowler said she had a right to keep the dog. The reason? She's legally blind, and Laura is her service animal.

"She helps me to get around curbs and obstacles," Fowler said in her home Monday with Laura sleeping at her feet, "She's 100 percent necessary to me. She's my lifeline."

Before Fowler moved into the community, she was required to fill out an application and pass a background check. She disclosed her need for Laura and the dog's weight. Her application was approved.

Then in August of 2012, the association sent her landlord a letter saying they needed to address the issue of the dog "immediately." When Fowler provided documentation of her disability, the association did not withdraw the notice of the violations, according to the lawsuit.

"I felt demeaned, and I felt degraded," Fowler said. "I've never felt so degraded."

She called prominent law firm Morgan and Morgan and filed a civil rights lawsuit in Pasco court. The suit seeks monetary damages for mental anguish and injunctive relief: basically, she wants to live in Paradise Lakes without being bothered or harassed.

"The association kept demanding more proof of her disability," said Fowler's lawyer, Jessica Thorson. "She is legally blind."

The condo association seemed to back off after the suit was filed, and circuit Judge Linda Babb dismissed the complaint. An appeals court reversed that decision, however, and now Fowler plans to proceed.

"It's the principle of the fact," Fowler's husband, Craig, said. "The board needs to know they cannot bully us around."

Fowler says Lisa Caruso, the condo association president, has told her to only walk the dog in specific areas, and that the dog must move out of the way of pedestrians. Also, she's been told her dog is out of control.

"My dog is a highly trained service animal," Fowler said. "She is not out of control."

Caruso declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.

Fowler says she's been accused of not cleaning up after her dog and that people yell at her because Laura is too big. She said it's the board of directors that tries to intimidate her. And with the board of directors, go the residents.

But she won't let it affect her, she said. She's been through so much already. About four years ago, Fowler was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called leukocytoclastic vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels.

Her veins and capillaries started breaking down. Her sight went first. Her hearing is next, she said. She's had 13 surgeries and takes 15 medications a day. She wants the harassment to stop.

It won't push her out of Paradise Lakes, though. She loves the location, and she knows the area — for a blind woman, that means a lot. She can walk to Walmart with Laura. Sometimes, when her children aren't around, she likes to shed her clothes and walk and feel free in the sunshine.

Jon Silman can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or jsilman@tampabay.com.

This article has been updated to reflect the following clarification: Sharon Fowler sued the Paradise Lakes Condominium Association, Inc., one of several associations at the resort. A story in Wednesday's Pasco Times was unclear on this point.

Disabled Pasco woman sues nudist community over service dog 02/25/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 5:32pm]
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