Friday, November 20, 2009
(11-20) 16:02 PST SACRAMENTO -- Michele Warner lives in physical and mental pain and coped, for a while, with the help of a mixed Labrador retriever-German shepherd named Nellie.
That lasted until her Orange County landlords informed her that the 48-pound animal exceeded the apartment complex's new, 35-pound weight limit for pets.
Warner said she had a doctor's note that recommended a dog for therapy and classified Nellie as a companion, not a pet. The owners nevertheless refused to renew her lease, she said, and she moved from one temporary residence to another, unable to find a home for the dog. Eventually, she had to put Nellie to death.
This week, the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing announced that the Huntington Villas Apartments in Huntington Beach had agreed to pay Warner nearly $300,000 to settle her suit claiming she had been discriminated against because she is disabled. The owners also agreed to let disabled tenants keep animals that weigh more than 35 pounds if they are classified as companions or helpers.
The case should remind landlords that they must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled renters, said the state agency's director, Phyllis Cheng.
State law "requires housing providers to modify pet policies so that individuals with disabilities who need companion animals can have them," she said.
A lawyer for the apartment owners declined to comment on the case.
A state appeals court ruled in 2004 that mentally stressed residents who were prescribed dogs as therapeutic companions may be exempt from apartment or condominium bans on pets. The court upheld a state commission's $18,000 damage award to a depressed Placer County couple whose wirehaired terrier, Pookie, was evicted by their condominium association under its no-dogs policy.
In the current case, the state agency said Warner has suffered from painful ailments of the spine, muscles and nervous system for more than 10 years, leading to anxiety and depression.
Nellie's companionship made life more bearable after Warner moved into Huntington Villas in February 2005, but when she tried to renew her lease eight months later, she encountered the newly imposed weight limit for pets, the agency said.
She sued the apartment owners in 2006 after euthanizing the dog.
Annmarie Billotti, a lawyer with the agency, said the settlement money would help Warner find larger housing that can accommodate another dog.
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