Sabal Palm Condos. of Pine Island Ridge Ass'n, Inc. v. Fischer

Decision Date13 March 2014
Docket NumberCase No. 12-60691-Civ-SCOLA
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Florida
PartiesSabal Palm Condominiums of Pine Island Ridge Association, Inc., Plaintiff, v. Laurence M. Fischer and Deborah G. Fischer, et al., Defendants.
Omnibus Order

The underlying dispute in this case is whether Laurence and Deborah Fischer, who are residents of Sabal Palm Condominiums of Pine Island Ridge Association, Inc., may keep a service dog, Sorenson, in their condominium as a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., to assist Deborah, who has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair. Deborah requested an accommodation in October 2011 because Sabal Palm has a no-pets policy.1 On Sabal Palm's request, Deborah provided Sabal Palm with medical records substantiating that she has multiple sclerosis, is disabled within the meaning of the FHA, and suffers from various symptoms including severe difficulty in grabbing and manipulating items. She also provided records substantiating that Sorenson is a certified service dog trained to help her by retrieving items, opening and closing doors, and turning light switches on and off. Though that information should have been enough for Sabal Palm to grant Deborah's accommodation request, Sabal Palm (unwisely) decided that it wasn't. So in April 2012, it authorized its attorney, Christopher Trapani, to bring a declaratory-judgment action to have the Court decide (1) whether Sabal Palm was required under the FHA to grant Deborah an exemption from its no-pets policy and allow it to keep her dog, and (2) theextent of the records that Sabal Palm was entitled to under the FHA in order to evaluate Deborah's requested accommodation. In the declaratory-judgment action, Sabal Palm is the Plaintiff and the Fischers, the Defendants.

The Fischers then brought three counterclaims against Sabal Palm and three identical third-party claims against Trapani, the attorney, and Marvin Silvergold, who was (and possibly still is) the President of Sabal Palm's Board of Directors. (ECF No. 82.) For ease of reference the Court refers to this action as the Amended Counterclaim and to Sabal Palm, Trapani, and Silvergold collectively as Counter Defendants. The three claims asserted against Counter Defendants all allege violations of the FHA. They are: (1) that Counter Defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B) by refusing the Fischers' request for an accommodation (refusal-to-accommodate claim); (2) that Counter Defendants violated 42 U.S.C. §3604(c) by promulgating rules in December 2011 for residents to keep pets and for disabled persons to obtain exemptions to the no-pets policy as an accommodation for their disability; and (3) that Counter Defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 3617 by instituting the declaratory-judgment action in order to retaliate against the Fischers for asserting their right to an accommodation under the FHA. (ECF No. 82.) For these alleged violations of the FHA, the Fischers seek injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and their attorney fees and costs. (Id.)

Each Counter Defendant filed a motion to dismiss all of these claims under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and to strike the Fischers' claim for punitive damages. (ECF Nos. 89, 90, 95, 96.) For the reasons set forth below, the motions to dismiss (ECF Nos. 89, 95, 96) are granted in part and denied in part and the request to strike punitive damages (ECF No. 90) is denied. More specifically, the Court grants the motions to dismiss with respect to the Fischers' § 3604(c) and § 3617 claims. These claims are dismissed with prejudice. But the Court denies the motions to dismiss with respect to the Fischers' refusal-to-accommodate claim. The Court also denies the Fischers' motion (ECF No. 214) seeking leave to amend their Amended Counterclaim.

Before proceeding, the Court pauses to note that, according to the Background Paper prepared for a United States Senate Informational Hearing on the subject of fake service dogs (hereafter, the "Background Paper"),2 there is a growing problem of people using fake service dogs, which has a "profound"and negative effect "on the disabled, business and medical communities, and the airline industry." Background Paper at 11; accord Background Paper at 12, 11, 13. And after the court in Auburn Woods I Homeowners Association v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission, 121 Cal. App. 4th 1578[, 1582, 1584-85, 1599 (2004), held that "a homeowner's association had discriminated against condominium residents, a married couple who suffered from depression and other disorders, in failing to reasonably accommodate their disabilities by permitting them to keep a small companion dog . . . the number of housing disability cases involving companion or comfort animals as a reasonable accommodation has soared." Background Paper at 10-11.

So the Court realizes that there is some reason to be skeptical of requests to keep a dog as an accommodation for a disability in certain cases, particularly cases where the dog assists the disabled person by rendering emotional support. But this is not such a case. It is undisputed that Deborah has a bona fide physical disability that has severe physical symptoms. And her specially trained service dog does not assist her by providing emotional support: it assists her by helping her complete physical tasks that her physical disability makes difficult. That Counter Defendants turned to the courts to resolve what should have been an easy decision is a sad commentary on the litigious nature of our society. 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.

Background

Because a detailed fact section is unnecessary, the Court primarily recounts the relevant facts in the analysis section below. But since the heart of the Fischers' Amended Counterclaim is the refusal-to-accommodate claim, familiarity with the FHA provisions undergirding this claim is helpful. The FHA forbids discrimination "against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling, because of a handicap."3 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(2). Prohibited discrimination includes "a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when suchaccommodations may be necessary to afford [a disabled person an] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." 42 U.S.C. §3604(f)(3)(B).

Two other helpful anchors are (1) knowing precisely what records Sabal Palm asked for and (2) Sabal Palm's belief about the validity of the Fischers' accommodation request at the time Sabal Palm brought the declaratory-judgment action. Sabal Palm requested that Deborah produce copies of her medical records from all of her healthcare providers who diagnosed or treated the disability that she claimed made a service dog necessary. (ECF No. 82-2 at 2.) In addition, Sabal Palm requested that she provide "all documents relating to the nature, size and species of dog, as well as all documents regarding any training it received." (Id. (emphasis added).) Though Deborah provided Sabal Palm with medical records substantiating her disability and its impact on her life, and with a record of Sorenson's training and certification, she did not provide all of her medical records relating to her disability nor all records relating to Sorenson's characteristics and his training. Because Sabal Palm believed that it was entitled to all of these records and that the records Deborah provided were insufficient to entitle her to keep Sorenson as an accommodation under the FHA, Sabal Palm had Trapani institute the declaratory-judgment action. (ECF No. 129; ECF No. 82-9.)

Sabal Palm's precise posture concerning Deborah's ability to keep Sorenson at the time it sued is nuanced. In a letter sent to the Fischers by Trapani on behalf of Sabal Palm just a few days after Sabal Palm brought the declaratory-judgment action, Sabal Palm relayed, in relevant part, the following: that it is undisputed that Deborah is disabled; that it is undisputed that her request to keep Sorenson "would not involve an extraordinary expense on the part of [Sabal Palm]"; that Sabal Palm believed the records provided thus far were insufficient to entitle Deborah to a dog as an accommodation under the FHA; that Sabal Palm believed that it was within its legal rights to deny the accommodation and require Deborah to remove Sorenson; that Sabal Palm "recognize[d] that whether, and under what circumstances, accommodations to disabled persons are required is an evolving issue under the law"; that Sabal Palm therefore instructed Trapani to bring the declaratory-judgment action; and that while the lawsuit is pending, Deborah could "temporarily keep" Sorenson. (ECF No. 82-9 at 2-3.)

Analysis
A. Motion-to-dismiss standard

When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept all of a complaint's well-pled factual allegations as true,construing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008). Under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a pleading need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Though the Rule does not require detailed factual allegations, it does require "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (brackets, internal citation, and internal quotation marks omitted). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2...

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