Phyllis Schleifer was so fragile and lonely, her doctors prescribed a medicine that weighs three pounds. His name is Sweetie, a Chihuahua. A prescription pet.
But the Century Village widow has had nothing but emotional turmoil since 2008 when Sweetie moved into her no-dogs-allowed condo in Deerfield Beach. Condo officials refused to allow the pet, even though Schleifer had a doctor’s note saying she needed him as an “emotional service animal.’’ She says her condo retaliated against her and mistreated her, and made her neighbors pay for the legal fight. Someone — she doesn’t know who — even pushed her down a flight of stairs, she alleges.
Now, she’s taken her case not to doctors, but to the taxpayers. Broward County government will sue Schleifer’s Ventnor “H” Condo Association on her behalf, commissioners agreed Tuesday.
Schleifer, who was in a car accident and then several years later, in 2005, lost her husband of 42 years, suffers “severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,’’ county documents say, a legitimate disability in the courts’ eyes. Hence, the county says, she needs Sweetie much like a blind person needs a Seeing Eye dog.
The unusual move to push a case onto the Broward taxpayers’ bill is embedded in law, though few cases make it that far. County officials said Schleifer’s is their first prescription pet lawsuit — an increasingly common disability case. The case is expected to cost the county between $15,000 and $50,000.
Broward Commissioner Ilene Lieberman worried Tuesday when the case came to commissioners’ attention that Schleifer’s case would spark a “field day’’ of complainants asking taxpayers to pick up 100 percent of their legal costs, whether they’re rich, poor or in between.
The county has no choice, though, and is obligated to file the lawsuit because of its contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides funding for the arrangement.
Condo residents who want prescription pets can’t just line up for the county to represent them. First they have to file with the county’s Civil Rights Division, which must find “reasonable cause’’ of a violation of the law. Most cases then settle before moving to the lawsuit stage, county officials said.
In this case, investigators believe Ventnor condo violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the county’s Human Rights Act.
Schleifer, 68, said she can’t live without Sweetie but claims her neighbors treated her horribly because of her request for a pet waiver. One man even answered her smile in the elevator with the response “f--- you,’’ she said.
“They need someone to pick on,’’ Schleifer said Thursday, cradling the Chihuahua in her arms. “And it’s me.’’
The former Boca Raton wife and mom said four doctors told her to get a dog to ease her fragile mental state. She went to a pet store and locked eyes with the tiny Sweetie.
“I took one look at her. She took one look at me, and she literally jumped right into my arms. I said, ‘Oh, my God. This is heaven,’ ” Schleifer said Thursday.
Without Sweetie, she said, “that would be the end of me.’’