This case involved a dispute between a homeowners association (Association) and a homeowner (Owner) over Owners right to have an accommodation from HOA 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 Associations 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 Associations policy. Despite Owners request that Association permit her to retain the Chihuahua as a necessary companion, Associations 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 Owners property for unpaid charges, interest, costs and attorneys 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 Associations actions amounted to a reckless or callous indifference to Owners 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:
Association knew it was required to comply with the Fair Housing Act;
Association did not respond to Owners requests for information regarding the documentation required for a service animal;
Association failed to request documentation from Owner that supported her request;
Association refused to engage in a dialogue with Owner about her request;
Association imposed fines on Owner for violations of the no pets policy and imposed a lien on Owners condominium;
Association filed a lawsuit against Owner seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not required to grant the requested accommodation.
Dissatisfied with the Courts judgment awarding Owner punitive damages, Association moved for a new trial on the award of punitive damages, or alternatively for remittitur (a reduction in the amount of the award). In denying the motion, the Court ruled that it made no error in concluding that Association acted with reckless and callous indifference to Owners federally protected right to the reasonable accommodation and further that, the award of punitive damages in the amount of $45,000 was reasonable.
District Court of the Virgin Islands Division of St. Croix decision (May 5, 2017)
See case decision: Nelson_v._Long_Reef_Condo._Homeowners_Ass’n_(D.V.I._2017)1