In The News

Condos vs. dogs: Battle is unleashed. Local ‘no-pet’ associations say fight over medical needs for owner may not be worth it.

By Kimberly Miller - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

One man is so afraid, he says he no longer walks in his quiet condo community west of Delray Beach. Another said he’s been attacked three times and has considered moving. A third was jumped on and scratched, a confrontation he said drew blood.

Their alleged tormenter, and a neighbor in the honeycomb of 1970-era units at the Villages of Oriole, is an 18-pound Bichon Frise named Gabby who bypasses the condo’s no pet rule with a special dispensation as an emotional support animal.

Abbey Village in the Villages of Oriole west of Delray Beach, home to a dogfight involving a Bichon Frise named Gabby.

And that’s really the rub.

Tension between residents circumspect of the designation and a handful of animal owners who say their dogs are necessary for their mental health has festered for years in the 55-plus community. But the claws came out in May when dog owners filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity, and the condominium board went on the defensive.

Attorneys who specialize in condominium law said people are increasingly taking advantage of lax rules regarding emotional support animals, causing Gabbyesque skirmishes throughout South Florida. Certificates attesting to a dog’s “service animal” status can be bought online, along with official-looking accessories, such as vests and ID badges.

The trappings make it difficult for condo boards to distinguish between a legitimate medical need and someone who just wants a pet.

It’s reached such a critical mass in some communities that attorney Paul J. Milberg, who teaches a class on emotional support animal rules, said condo boards are just giving up on their no-pet policies because they don’t want to spend the money to challenge “even the most bogus applications.”

“These are little tiny cute froo froo dogs, but this is a no dog community and has always been no dogs,” said Bruce Petricca, who lives in Oriole’s Abbey Village section and is a former condominium board member. “It sounds ridiculous, but it’s a real problem.”

Owners who want an emotional-support animal can be required to present a doctor’s note attesting to their need, but attorneys say those can be fudged. Still, faced with a physician’s signature and unaware of rules that require the note to specify a major life function that the animal helps the owner fulfill, boards are often “cowed” into submission, said West Palm Beach attorney Michael J. Gelfand.

It’s important to note that emotional-support animals are not trained service animals, such as those that assist the blind, and they are not covered in living situations by the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Fort Lauderdale-based attorney Eric Glazer, who practices association law. However, federal and Florida housing laws do allow for emotional support animals in a person’s home, even in no-pet communities.

To prove a point during a court case about how easy it is to get a support animal certificate online, Glazer said he once paid $49.99 to register “Pluto” as a support animal for his owner “Mr. Mickey Mouse.”

“We had an owner who claimed he needed a parrot for his depression, proceeded to buy three of them, and then went down to the pool with the parrots on his shoulder like a pirate,” said Donna DiMaggio Berger, a condo law attorney and executive director of the Margate-based Community Advocacy Network. “The birds started attacking people, and we had them removed.”

The saga of Gabby is laid out in a thick file at the Palm Beach County Office of Equal Opportunity. In May, Gabby’s owner and three other Abbey Village residents with emotional support animals complained their rights were violated under a new pet policy that included limitations on where they could walk their dogs.

“They had to carry their dogs up and down the stairs, they couldn’t use the elevator, and they had this ominous annual review that required them to verify they were still disabled,” said Amanda Kleinrock, a Palm Beach County Legal Aid attorney who helped represent the dog owners.

Gabby’s owners got a note in 2008 attesting to the need for an emotional support animal to help “ameliorate depression.” Petricca said about 15 dogs have special accommodations to live in the community, and no one with a doctor’s note has been turned down.

In witness statements collected by county investigators, residents came out fighting for both sides. The three men who said they had been bitten, scratched or attacked by dogs were called liars, even though two supplied reports they made to Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control. Dog owners said they were harassed by condo commandos who followed them, taking pictures and levying fines when they strayed from designated dog zones.

Michael Reinstein, 67, who has cerebral palsy, told investigators he got wrapped up in Gabby’s retractable leash and almost fell during a 2012 incident in which his dog Mitzi got bit. Unit owner Frank Vernaglia, 68, said he was bitten three times, but never bad enough to seek medical attention.

Petricca, 56, who has diabetes and is on blood thinners, said Gabby jumped up on him and scratched his leg, drawing blood.

No one who filed the May complaint would comment for this story. Neither the president of the Abbey Village board or his vice president returned messages.

In September, the complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity was withdrawn after a settlement was reached between the association and the dog owners. Kleinrock said the dog owners got more than $70,000.

“I’m sure there are people who violate the rules,” said Kleinrock. “But these people did what they needed to to get their animals approved.”

Bruce Petricca resigned from the board when the case went to mediation.

“I’m tired of this community just rolling over and playing dead for these dogs,” he said. “It’s not the dogs’ fault. It’s the owners who should be spanked.”

Americans with Disabilities Act definitions

Service animals are dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, including guiding people who are blind or pulling a wheelchair. Generally, service animals must be allowed to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where the public is allowed to go.

Emotion support dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort do not qualify as service animals under ADA. They can be restricted from public places that don’t allow pets, but are allowed to live in no-pet housing and travel in the cabins of planes with a doctor’s note.