In this day and age it’s a rare situation where an association prevails in a legal action involving assistance animals. But for the Sun Harbor Homeowners Association, this is a current reality.
Sun Harbor is a townhome community in Florida with a “no pets” covenant. As with any homeowners association, Sun Harbor remains subject to all pertinent requirements of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which requires reasonable accommodations or modifications to be provided for disabled residents. A reasonable accommodation includes adjusting rules to allow assistance animals in communities that prohibit pets.
In this case, the owner’s fiancé had a car accident and claimed to have suffered from depression for which she needed her dog. When the association discovered the dog’s existence and demanded its removal, the owner refused. As a result, the association initiated legal action against the owner for violation of its covenants.
In addition to the above facts, the following information also played a significant role in the court’s decision: 1) The dog was not disclosed to the board of directors when it was moved in; 2) After the board discovered the dog and confronted the owner and his fiancé, existence of the dog was denied; 3) A request for a reasonable accommodation was not made prior to the legal action; and 4) The fiancé did not see a psychiatrist until after the association filed a law suit to enforce its covenants.
Upon conclusion of the trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the owner and his fiancé. But when the association appealed the trial court’s decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and held there was not enough evidence to support the verdict in favor of the owner and revised the decision.
The Appellate Court based its ruling on the owner’s evasiveness and the failure of the owner to request a reasonable accommodation until after legal action was commenced. The Appellate Court further ruled that the owner failed to prove an emotional handicap that required an accommodation.
So what’s the lesson to be learned in this case? Be honest; be forthcoming; and request an accommodation if you need one. Judges may not all like homeowner associations, but they also don’t like liars.