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Bhogaita v. Altamonte Heights Condo. Ass'n, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 27, 2014

AJIT BHOGAITA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
ALTAMONTE HEIGHTS CONDOMINIUM ASSN., INC., Defendant - Appellant

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Appeals from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. D. C. Docket No. 6:11-cv-01637-GAP-DAB.

For Ajit Bhogaita, Plaintiff - Appellee (13-12625, 13-13914): Matthew W. Dietz, The Law Office of Matthew W. Dietz, Miami, FL; Aaron Carter Bates, Matthew Scott Mokwa, The Maher Law Firm, PA, Winter Park, FL.

For Altamonte Heights Condominium Assn., Inc., Defendant - Appellant (13-12625, 13-13914): Scott Allan Cole, Kathryn L. Smith, Cole Scott & Kissane, PA, Miami, FL; Gregory Ackerman, Robert Alden Swift, Cole Scott & Kissane, PA, Orlando, FL.

Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, DUBINA, and SILER,[*] Circuit Judges.

OPINION

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DUBINA, Circuit Judge:

Appellee Ajit Bhogaita persuaded a jury that Appellant Altamonte Heights Condominium Association, Inc., (" the Association" ) violated the disability provisions of the Federal and Florida Fair Housing Acts, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B) (" FHA" ) and Fla. Stat. § 760.23(9)(b), respectively, when it enforced its pet weight policy and demanded Bhogaita remove his emotional support dog from his condominium. The jury awarded Bhogaita $5,000 in damages, and the district court awarded Bhogaita more than $100,000 in attorneys' fees. The Association appealed both the judgment entered on the jury's verdict and the award of attorneys' fees. We consolidated the appeals and now affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual History

The Association is a non-profit homeowner's association for a condominium complex located in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Bhogaita is a United States Air Force veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (" PTSD" ) that developed after a sexual assault he endured during his military service.

In 2001, Bhogaita bought a condominium unit managed by the Association and subject to its rules. Among those rules, the Association prohibited occupants from keeping dogs weighing more than twenty-five pounds. In 2008, Bhogaita acquired a dog, Kane, that exceeded the weight limit. Though no medical professional prescribed the dog initially, 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. He kept the dog for the next two years.

On May 4, 2010, the Association demanded that Bhogaita remove Kane from his unit, pursuant to the weight limit. Bhogaita responded by providing the first of three letters from Dr. Shih-Tzung Li, his treating psychiatrist, explaining that the dog was an emotional support animal. The first letter, written on May 7, read in relevant part:

Due to mental illness, Mr. Bhogaita has certain limitations regarding social interaction and coping with stress and anxiety. In order to help alleviate these difficulties, and to enhance his ability to live independently and to fully use and enjoy the dwelling unit, I am prescribing an emotional support animal that will assist Mr. Bhogaita in coping with his disability.

(R. 36-6 at 2.)[1] In the second letter, sent days later, Dr. Li added specific information about the dog. He wrote that Bhogaita " has a therapeutic relationship with this specific dog, Kane. As an emotional support animal, Kane serves to ameliorate otherwise difficult to manage day to day psychiatric symptoms in Mr. Bhogaita." (R. 36-6 at 3.)

In July, the Association responded by sending Bhogaita its first request for additional information regarding his disability and the need for accommodation. Specifically, it asked him:

1. What is the exact nature of your impairment? How does it substantially limit a major life activity?

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2. How long have you been receiving treatment for this specific impairment?
3. How many sessions have you had with Dr. Li?
4. What specific training has your dog received?
5. Why does it require a dog over 25 pounds to afford you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy your dwelling?

(R. 36-7 at 2 (numbering added).)

Bhogaita responded later that month by providing a third letter from Dr. Li, in which the doctor indicated the nature and cause of the disability for the first time: He was treating Bhogaita for " Anxiety related to military trauma." (R. 36-6 at 4.) Dr. Li explained further:

. . . [Bhogaita's condition] limits his ability to work directly with other people, a major life activity. Currently he has been hired to perform technical support work from home. He is able to work with the assistance of his emotional support animal. Otherwise his social interactions would be so overwhelming that he would be unable to perform work of any kind.
I am familiar with the therapeutic benefits of assistance animals for people with disabilities such as that experienced by Mr. Bhogaita. Upon request, I would be happy to answer other questions you may have concerning my recommendation that Mr. Bhogaita have an emotional support animal. Should you have additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

(R. 36-6 at 4.)

Shortly thereafter, Bhogaita also sent a response to the Association in which he answered the Association's questions in turn. Bhogaita identified his diagnosis and incorporated by reference Dr. Li's third letter to explain how his PTSD " affects major life activities." (R. 35-5 at 17.) He also claimed an additional disability related to five knee surgeries and two separate knee injuries arising from his military service and stated that Kane " provides mobility assistance to compensate" for those injuries. (R. 35-5 at 17.)

After receiving Dr. Li's three letters and learning of Bhogaita's knee problems, the Association sent Bhogaita a second request for information on August 17, 2010. The ...


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