by Rayven Wright
On the eve of her 21st birthday, Brittney and her mother Tina were shocked to receive a notice of non-compliance from their property manager.
According to the notice, Brittney’s emotional support animal, Panga, was in violation of the community’s height and weight guidelines under the pet policy. If Panga was not removed in seven days, Brittney and Tina were told, they would face eviction from their home of six years.
“Our reaction was utter devastation and chaos and sadness,” Tina said. “I know, physically, I was in hives over it. [Brittney] had some major manic attacks.”
Brittney suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her 40-pound Labrador-mix, Panga, provides emotional support through periods of depression and anxiety. According to Tina, Panga has been instrumental to her daughter’s well-being. Since living with Panga, Brittney has not been Baker Acted, nor has she performed self-harm.
Tina and Brittney had been dealing with harassment from their property manager prior to being issued the notice, and their therapist connected them with Pamela Fields of Legal Aid of Manasota. After they received the notice, Fields connected them with pro bono attorney Merissa Mort the very same day.
“I just can’t even express how thankful and grateful I am that there are people like Merissa who will fight for those who can’t fight,” Tina said. “[Pro bono lawyers are] good people fighting for good people. I think there is not enough of that in the world.”
Fields discussed this case with Mort because she had recently tackled a similar case through Legal Aid of Manasota and had a successful outcome.
“I asked [Fields] if I could take [Brittney and Tina’s] case because I am passionate about housing rights,” Mort said.
Brittney and Tina live in a federally-subsidized housing complex with a 20-lb weight restriction on dogs. However, under the Fair Housing Act, comfort animals, like Panga, are exempt from any community rules including breed, size, pet limits or no pet policy.
Mort wrote a demand letter to the property manager explaining that the notice was in violation of Brittney’s rights under the Fair Housing Act. Two days later, the community’s attorney responded with a letter stating that Brittney’s disability meant she would be granted reasonable accommodations regarding Panga and that the seven-day notice would be withdrawn.
“It was a godsend.” Tina said. “I think if things had not turned out that way, if legal aid did not accept our case, if they didn’t find Ms. Merissa Mort, I think we would be homeless today, for sure. It was happy birthday to Brittney.”
This is the second case Mort has handled through Legal Aid of Manasota. Mort feels fulfilled knowing that through pro bono she can help change someone’s life in their greatest time of need by simply doing what she loves to do.
“JFK said it best,” Mort said. “‘For those to whom much is given, much is required.’ As attorneys we have the unique ability of helping people in life changing matters. Pro bono work doesn’t have to be time consuming. Sometimes pro bono cases take months to complete, and sometimes they are resolved through one simple letter. We should do what we can, when we can, to help others in need.”
Brittney says she is thankful to everyone involved in providing legal aid to those who need it, calling them true heroes.
“My life has been a whole lot brighter because someone stepped in and spoke up for me,” Brittney said. “It’s an amazing thing to feel whole again.”