SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court, delving into the sensitive realm of people's relationships with their pets, ruled Friday that condominium and other homeowner associations may ban cats and other pets from dwellings.
The 6-1 decision significantly strengthens the ability of homeowner associations to enforce a wide range of prohibitions on everything from pets to pickup trucks to satellite dishes. An estimated 6 million Californians live in homes governed by such associations.
Previous rulings by lower courts had carved some exceptions to the restrictions in cases in which the rules seemed unreasonable. But the Supreme Court, expressing disagreement with those decisions, said blanket rules must be enforced uniformly unless an owner can show the burden outweighs the benefit for everyone in the association.
The case was brought by Natore (pronounced Nature) A. Nahrstedt, 47, who said she has spent $50,000 in legal fees in her vain attempt to keep her three cats, Boo-Boo, Dockers and Tulip. The Culver City woman said Friday that she will move rather than get rid of her pets.
"They are like my children," said the entertainment industry business manager. "They give me unconditional love, and I would rather have them than a husband or boyfriend at this point."
One of her cats is 17 years old. She dotes on them, giving them birthday cakes and making a special turkey for them on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Nahrstedt argued that her cats should be exempt from the prohibition because she keeps them indoors at all times. Association officers discovered them after peering though the window of her first-floor unit, she said.
"I am an immaculate housekeeper," she said. "I am the model pet owner. Children cause more damage to the common area and make more noise than my cats ever would."
Justice Joyce Kennard, the owner of two cats, wrote the court's decision. "Those of us who have cats or dogs can attest to their wonderful companionship and affection," she wrote. ". . . But the issue before us is not whether in the abstract pets can have a beneficial effect on humans."
Allowing individual homeowners to be exempt from the rules because of their particular circumstances would "frustrate" other owners who bought their units relying on the regulations, Kennard wrote.
"Deciding whether a particular animal is confined to an owner's unit . . . is a fact-intensive determination that can only be made by examining in detail the behavior of the particular animal and the behavior of the particular owner," she wrote. "Homeowners' associations are ill-equipped to make such investigations."
Justice Armand Arabian dissented, beginning with a quotation from Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the misery of life: music and cats."
He denounced the majority decision as "chary," an example of the law being allowed to ignore "the human spirit."
"Pet ownership substantially enhances the quality of life for those who desire it," he wrote.
Arabian also noted that the pet prohibition at the 530-unit complex allows for birds, even though they can be more irksome than cats that live inside an owner's home. The complex also permits fish.
"A squawking bird can readily create the very kind of disturbance supposedly prevented by banning other types of pets," he said.
The state's high court reversed a decision by a Court of Appeal in Los Angeles which held that such association bans cannot be enforced in a situation in which they are clearly "unreasonable."
Leonard Siegel, the Beverly Hills attorney who represented the Lakeside Village Condominium Assn. against Nahrstedt, called the ruling a "victory for common sense."
"This case will have great significance throughout the state because it does what the Legislature intended: it puts the burden on a unit owner to prove that a rule is not rational."
Homeowner associations around the state had filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case in support of the Lakeside development.
But Joel Tamraz, the Santa Monica attorney who represented the cat owner, urged people with pets to lobby the Legislature to change the law. "We shouldn't be forced to leave our homes in order to have pets," he said.
He said the court decision becomes final in 30 days, and the association "can do whatever they want" to evict the cats.
In another decision, the court ruled Friday that a young girl in San Diego can stay with foster parents who want to adopt her even though her biological father also wants custody.
The girl, Jasmon O., now 7, has been with her foster parents since she was an infant. Ruling 6 to 1, the court decided that the evidence in the case showed that placing the child with her biological father would be detrimental to her. Justice Marvin Baxter dissented.
Jasmon's father was living in a home for the mentally disturbed when his daughter was born. He later overcame a drug habit, obtained psychological counseling, got a job and began visiting her regularly.
But a San Diego Superior Court decided against giving him custody after experts testified that the girl experienced anxiety when separated from her foster family during her father's visits, and he was unable to empathize with her.