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Fla. Man Denied Reasonable Accommodation for Service Dog: 11th Cir.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on September 03, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

State and federal laws protect a person's ability to live in a housing unit with a service animal even if the landlord or homeowners association has a no pets policy. This is because a service animal isn't a "pet," it's a service animal.

A Florida homeowners association didn't seem to think so. It was skeptical of one tenant's claim that he needed a service animal that exceeded the HOA's weight limit. The Eleventh Circuit decided last week that its demands for more information were unreasonable.

Constructive Denial

A trial court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Ajit Bhogaita, an Air Force veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress. The lower court finding that the HOA's continued and escalating demands for information amounted to a "constructive denial" of his request for accommodation. At a trial on the issue of whether the association had discriminated against him, the jury found for Bhogaita; the HOA appealed.

As a matter of law, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the association had failed to reasonably accommodate Bhogaita's disability. Rather than respond to his request, it continued to ask for more information even though the physician's letters were more than adequate to address the association's concerns. The repeated, escalating inquiries went beyond what the association need to make reasonable accommodations, the Eleventh Circuit explained.

Notably, the trial court allowed Bhogaita's dog to remain in the courtroom during the trial. The association contended that the dog's presence was unfairly prejudicial, "as it suggested that Bhogaita required the dog at all times, and that this prejudicial effect substantially outweighed any probative value the dog may have had." The court didn't delve into this assignment of error too much, as it affirmed the district court's decision under the deferential abuse of discretion standard.

It's Still a Disability

There's a lot of skepticism surrounding people's need for emotional support animals. With the rise in the number of military combat veterans, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better; a quick Google search reveals stories of shopkeepers and store owners who wouldn't let someone in with a service animal, on the mistaken belief that they're only for "real" disabilities, where "real" means "something I can see."

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