Condo Must Pay For Causing Dog's Eviction
(CN) - A condo association must pay $5,000 in damages, plus $127,000 in attorneys' fees, for insisting that a veteran with PTSD get rid of his emotional support dog, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Ajit Bhogaita is a U.S. Air Force veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after he was sexually assaulted during his military service.
In 2001, he bought a condo unit in Altamonte Springs, Florida.
The condo association prohibits keeping dogs weighing more than 25 pounds, but Bhogaita bought a dog, Kane, in 2008 that was over the weight limit.
"Bhogaita's psychiatric symptoms improved with Kane's presence, so much so that Bhogaita began to rely on the dog to help him manage his condition," according to the judgment.
When the association ordered him to get rid of Kane two years later, Bhogaita argued that the dog was an emotional support animal, and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
After a civil trial, a jury awarded Bhogaita $5,000 in compensatory damages for the Association's refusal to accommodate his disability. The court also awarded him $127,000 in attorneys' fees.
The 11th Circuit affirmed the jury's verdict, and the fee award Wednesday.
"Bhogaita produced evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude that his dog alleviated the effects of his PTSD. Specifically, Dr. Li's letters said that Kane assists Bhogaita 'in coping with his disability,' and 'ameliorate[s]' Bhogaita's 'psychiatric symptoms,' and that without the dog, Bhogaita's 'social interactions would be so overwhelming that he would be unable to perform work of any kind,'" Judge Joel Dubina said, writing for the three-judge panel.
The association also insists that it was prejudiced by the court's decision to allow Kane's presence in the courtroom and at Bhogaita's side during his testimony.
"A district court abuses its discretion to admit relevant evidence when its decision rests on a clearly erroneous fact-finding, 'an errant conclusion of law, or an improper application of law to fact,'" the judge said. "Nothing suggests that the district court's decision allowing the dog to remain present as a demonstrative exhibit rested on any of the three."
As Bhogaita's $5,000 recovery was not nominal, he was entitled to attorneys' fees as the prevailing party, Dubina wrote.