LUTZ — Since 2011, Sharon Fowler has endured 13 surgeries. Each time, her service dog, Laura, is allowed to stay in the hospital room with her.
Fowler, who is legally blind, and her husband, Craig, often go into the nearby Chili’s for a bite to eat. Laura, a black Labrador who will turn 5 in August, quietly listens to the command, “down and under,” which directs her under the table at the restaurant. Not a peep is heard, the Fowlers say.
In the almost three years they have had her, Laura has barked maybe twice, they said.
“Laura is literally Sharon’s lifeline to the outside world,” Craig Fowler said. “It keeps her from being restricted, and able to function. As long as Sharon is with Laura, I have no worries. I know she is in more than capable paws.”
But at the condo the Fowlers lease in Paradise Lakes Resort, a clothing-optional destination for nudists, the welcome feelings vanish.
The Fowlers have filed a lawsuit against the Paradise Lakes Condominium Association. They say the association has broken Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act laws by attempting to have Laura removed from the premises.
“I’m not asking to be treated special,” said Sharon Fowler, 43, whose blindness comes as a result of Churg-Strauss Syndrome, which inflames blood vessels. That inflammation restricts blood flow to different organs and tissue. “No, I hold my own weight. I don’t ask people to do anything for me, but don’t treat me like I’m a second-class citizen or that my dog is a terrible thing.”
The lawsuit was originally dismissed in February 2013, but an appeal filed the following month was upheld last week on Feb. 19, allowing the suit to continue.
The Fowlers are seeking monetary damages of at least $15,000.
Since the suit was filed, the association has allowed Laura to stay, although no paperwork has been filed documenting the stay, the Fowlers’ attorney, Jessica Thorson, said.
“She wants injunctive relief to make sure she doesn’t get harassed anymore,” Thorson said. “To formally grant the request accommodation and she’s also seeking damages for her mental anguish and her humiliation for just being harassed this whole time and under the Fair Housing Act, she can seek that. Even though they may have said after the complaint was filed, ‘OK, you can live there with your service animal,’ that doesn’t mean she can’t seek damages for what they had done to her prior to her having to file a lawsuit.”
There were three incidents in a six-week period from the time they moved onto the resort grounds in 2012. The first two the couple ignored, but the final incident, which brought Sharon Fowler to tears, promoted the lawsuit.
After about three months of living on the property, the condo they had leased went into foreclosure and the Fowlers were given two weeks to move.
A man they knew had a condo he was leasing and they began the process of renting the home. The new landlord knew the Fowlers, knew of Sharon’s condition and was aware of Laura, who weighs in above 70 pounds.
“He was fine with everything,” Craig Fowler, 44, said.
Things became shaky when someone from the association told the property owner not to rent to the Fowlers. The woman said it was because the Fowlers had an oversized, out-of-control dog.
Three weeks later, the condo association sent a letter to the condo’s owner saying Laura exceeded the community’s 25-pound limit for dogs.
If Laura remained, the condo owner would be fined $50 a day.
That was after paperwork had been filed notifying the association of Sharon Fowler’s blindness and use of a trained service dog, the Fowlers said.
“Our main claim is the Fair Housing Act,” Thorson said. “When she initially applied, she disclosed that she had an animal over the weight limit, and a little bit after, they sent her a violation letter that her dog was over the weight limit. She sent all the information that she has a service animal, basically everything they needed to do an investigation about whether she is entitled to a reasonable accommodation to their rules.”
Because of Laura’s service dog status, which was achieved by 26 days of training by Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc., she is exempt from most, if not all, restrictions.
The lawyer for Paradise Lakes Condominium Association, Jeremy Rogers, said there would be no comment on the matter from their side due to the pending litigation.
“We’ll let the courts sort it out,” he said.
The final straw for the Fowlers came two weeks after the letter was sent. Sharon Fowler went into the office for another matter with Laura by her side. The manager at the time began to question her about Laura.
Fowler explained her condition and Laura’s tasks.
The manager then continued questioning her about her medical condition. Fowler said the questioning was unnecessary because the documentation on Laura as well as Fowler’s condition had been filed with the association.
Things became even more confounding when the manager went to a file cabinet to discover Fowler’s file was empty. A receptionist in the office told the manager, in Fowler’s presence, that she took the documents home.
The manager’s questions continued.
“At this point I was in tears and becoming hysterical,” Sharon Fowler, a former nursing assistant, said. “It was intimidation. He was drilling me and drilling me over and over again.”
Fowler said she felt as though she was becoming physically ill so she left the office.
The Fowlers’ fight is not only about treatment to those who use service animals, but it’s also about familiarity, they said.
Sharon Fowler knows where everything is located by memory. From the silverware in the kitchen drawers to the route she walks to reach the local Wal-Mart.
Laura knows her way around as well.
“Laura’s trained to where if I say, ‘Laura, home,’ Laura will take me home,” Sharon Fowler said, with Laura resting at her feet.
Laura can guide Sharon Fowler to the garbage dumpster in the community as well as the mailbox.
Churg-Strauss Syndrome has not only robbed Sharon Fowler of her vision, but it is also damaging her hearing.
The Fowlers say they will see this suit through to the end.
“People need to know you don’t treat people like this,” Sharon Fowler said.
“Paradise Lakes needs to know, I may be sick, I may be legally blind, but I’m not going to back down.
“They’re not going to bully me.”