STUART — To the board of Leisure Village, Carolyn Hoffman's dog is a flagrant violation of the Stuart retirement community's rules.
To Hoffman, the dog is depression therapy protected by federal law.
"When I come in, he greets me at the door," the 75-year-old said in her tidy mobile home off Monterey Road. "If I'm on the computer, he's right here. He's just my little companion."
Hoffman sits dabbing her eyes with a tissue, the toy-sized, white dog cradled in her arm. He's here for a short visit before attorney and friend Oliver Harris takes him back. Hoffman knows that the longer her dog's around, the more likely a neighbor is to find out and have him removed.
Hoffman hopes the sneaking soon comes to an end. She's suing Leisure Village under the Fair Housing Act for the right to keep an "emotional-support animal."
"This is not a pet," said attorney David Boyer, who's representing Hoffman through the non-profit Disability Rights Florida. "It's an emotional-support animal. The federal housing act allows this accommodation."
Hoffman's fight against Leisure Village began in 2004, when the mobile-home park took action against her and long-term companion Derek Adams over their dog. The pair own a mobile home on a lot leased from Leisure Village. Hoffman and Adams were allowed to keep the dog after signing an agreement not to replace it when it died.
Since then, the dog died, Adams moved to England and Hoffman's depression worsened. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Tay Gaines of Port St. Lucie, urged her to get a dog. She chose a fluffy, white toy Maltese that she named Teddy, after the first dog. Early in 2011, Hoffman presented a letter from Gaines to the Leisure Village board of directors requesting an exception to the ban on dogs.
The board refused and in October fought Hoffman in Martin County Circuit Court. The judge ruled against Hoffman because of the 2004 agreement she'd signed.
Boyer considers the ruling erroneous because the agreement was for an ordinary pet, and not an emotional-support animal for someone with a disability. He believes Hoffman is entitled to a hearing in federal court under the Fair Housing Act. A federal judge is expected to decide within the next month whether to hear the case.
West Palm Beach attorney Nicole Wall, representing Leisure Village, said neither she nor the board could comment on the case.
One move in Hoffman's favor came in January, when the Florida Commission on Human Relations issued an opinion suggesting she was a victim of unfair discrimination. The opinion is non-binding, but could influence the court.
Whatever the outcome, Hoffman vows to keep Teddy.
"I'll move out of here," she said, "if I have to pitch a tent."