Court Awards Homeowner Punitive Damages After Association Denies Owner’s Request for an Accommodation from Association’s “No Pets” Policy
This case involved a dispute between a homeowners association (“Association”) and a homeowner (“Owner”) over Owner’s right to have an accommodation from Association’s “no pets” policy in order to retain her pet Chihuahua that she contended was needed to enable Owner to cope with her severe emotional and mental distress.
Owner had lived within the community governed by Association for nearly five years before she acquired the Chihuahua in 2009 after the loss of six people who were close to her, including an immediate family member, in an approximately six-month period. Following these unfortunate occurrences, Owner began experiencing significant emotional and mental distress that manifested itself in physical symptoms that included insomnia, inability and unwillingness to socialize, and panic attacks. The dog brought Owner out of her depressed states of mind, operated as a warning system for her, and enabled her to feel safe. She sought and obtained professional assistance and, to verify her need for the support animal, she obtained a letter from a licensed clinical social worker stating that she should “have a dog for safety and companionship.”
After Owner obtained the Chihuahua, Association notified her that she was violating Association’s “no pets” policy and demanded that she remove the Chihuahua from her condominium or Association would impose fines and pursue legal action against her for violation of Association’s policy. Despite Owner’s request that Association permit her to retain the Chihuahua as a necessary companion, Association’s management personnel and/or directors began levying fines against her, and failed to provide her with information relative to documentation that Association believed it needed to further evaluate her request for an accommodation. For further leverage, Association also filed a lien against Owner’s property for unpaid charges, interest, costs and attorney’s fees in connection with the fines that it imposed on Owner. The lien was ultimately removed by Association but Owner, feeling harassed by Association, moved out of her condominium for an extended period of time.
Following a trial, in August of 2016, the Court ruled that Association’s actions amounted to a reckless or callous indifference to Owner’s federally protected right and awarded Owner $12,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $45,000 in punitive damages based on the following factual findings:
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