Condo association forcing 88-year-old woman with dementia to get rid of cat

Article Courtesy of The TCPalm

By Eve Samples

Published June 11, 2010 

Mitzy the cat has got to go.

That was the message embedded in a court summons that 88-year-old Bea Garza and her husband, Ron, received at the doorstep of their condo on Monday.

Never mind that Bea is diagnosed with dementia and depression, and the cat provides emotional support.

Never mind that Mitzy isn’t a burden on the managers at Vista Pines, the condo complex off East Ocean Boulevard where the Garzas live.

The only thing that seems to matter to Vista Pines Association is that Mitzy violates the “no cats” rule.

So the condominium association has spent the past year trying to get rid of her.

Last August, after getting wind of the fact that the Garzas had a cat in their modest condo, the association warned the couple that they had 48 hours to remove Mitzy. If they didn’t, they would face legal action.

But the Garzas kept their beloved cat, providing a psychiatrist’s note that said Bea needed Mitzy to alleviate the symptoms of her illnesses. The cat makes her less lonely, and helps her keep a grip on reality.

“She loves her to death, the cat,” said Ron, who is 81 and does occasional work as a handyman. “That’s her life.”

That didn’t matter to the association. It made good on its word

Bea Garza spends time with Mitzy at her home in Vista Pines in Stuart. With her doctor’s recommendation, Bea’s husband Ron adopted Mitzy from the Humane Society to help with her dementia. Because Vista Pines doesn’t allow pets, the Garzas are now in a legal battle with the homeowners association to keep Mitzy.

In November, a lawyer from Fort Lauderdale-based Becker & Poliakoff filed a petition for arbitration on behalf of the association. In March, the arbitrator with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation issued a final order requiring the Garzas to remove the cat by April 1. But the decision hinges on a procedural issue — not the Garzas’ rights under the law.

That didn’t matter to the association either. It filed a lawsuit in Martin County Circuit Court to enforce the order. The Garzas now have 20 days to respond, according to the summons issued Monday.

A lawyer that took on the Garzas’ case pro bono last year said he intends to file a response by then.

“We needed a fair hearing, and we really didn’t get one,” said attorney Richard Brown of Vero Beach. “It really was a technical victory more than anything else.”

In the March 1 order, the arbitrator states Brown failed to file a timely discrimination claim with a housing authority. There was no discussion of legal rights — but Bea appears to have legitimate claims under the law, according to experts.

The Fair Housing Act requires that people with disabilities get “reasonable” accommodations for housing. For someone who is blind, that means adjusting any rules to allow for a guide dog. And for someone with dementia, that would mean allowing a cat if it is deemed by a doctor to alleviate those symptoms, said Michael Allen, a civil rights lawyer in Washington D.C. with expertise in the Fair Housing Act.

Even if the cat doesn’t provide a specific task, like a guide dog, it is still covered. A letter from a doctor should be enough proof, Allen said.

The exceptions are if the animal creates an undue financial burden on an association or requires the association to fundamentally alter its service.

“I don’t see how any one cat could come anywhere close to that,” Allen told me Wednesday.

Yet the Vista Pines Association seems intent on bullying the Garzas to get rid of Mitzy. It has deeper pockets. And, considering Bea’s dementia, it’s easier for the association to wage a fight.

“I think there are an awful lot of residents (nationwide) getting pushed around,” Allen told me. “They don’t have equal bargaining power, they don’t have equal access to lawyers.”

The Garzas worry that the association’s battle could drain their resources. But more than anything, they think it’s unfair.

“I think they want to make an example of us, and scare everybody else around,” Ron said.

Neither Vista Pines managers nor the association’s lawyer returned my calls about the Garzas. Maybe they’re getting a little scared now, too.

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