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.’’
But soon after, Schleifer tangled with some of the worst of what condos have to offer, her attorney, Peter Wallis of Pompano Beach, said.
“I can tell you there is certainly a class of condo people who simply just want to be difficult with everyone else,’’ Wallis said. “I think they’re invariably referred to as ‘condo commandos.’ ”
Exhibit “A’’ in the case is a notice Schleifer says was posted on a bulletin board at Ventnor. It alerted residents that she had a dog, that dogs were not allowed, and that the condo “sought legal representation’’ to fight her.
It called out Schleifer by name, and said her dog barked and disturbed neighbors. Then it warned that if a lawsuit were necessary, “we will spend our association’s money (all owners money)’’ on the suit.
She said seeing the notice was “like a knife in my heart.’’
The attorney Ventnor hired, Patrick J. Murphy of Deerfield Beach, sent her a letter demanding that she pay the condo’s $16,752 legal fees, and threatened to file a lien against her condo. His letter threatened a lawsuit, county documents say. Those acts were among the things considered “coercing, intimidating, threatening, or interfering’’ with Schleifer’s exercising of her federal legal rights.
Later, Murphy failed to sit down for mediation, according to county documents, which moved the case to litigation.
Murphy declined to comment Thursday.
William Lourenso, who was condo president when the discrimination and retaliation were alleged to have occurred, said Thursday he had no idea the matter wasn’t settled long ago. He said the condo followed Murphy’s guidance, and that in fighting Schleifer he thought he was doing his duty. He said the legal tab is now $24,000. Schleifer’s 63 neighbors were assessed to pay the bill.
“We had our bylaws and it didn’t allow dogs,’’ Lourenso said. “She took it upon herself to bring the dog in. Then she came up with the doctor’s note. … Anybody can get a doctor’s note these days.’’