For condominium associations and HOAs, effective governing documents are essential for their successful management and financial wellbeing. Association boards should regularly review their governing documents and bylaws to ensure their continued functionality and eliminate provisions that may have become archaic.

Deciding whether the documents and bylaws need to be amended can be difficult, and ratifying new amendments with the approval of the membership often presents significant challenges. Most governing documents include voting requirements for amendments stipulating that they must be approved by super majorities of two-thirds or three-fourths of the membership.

One of the best approaches for associations to take in reviewing and updating of their governing documents is for the board of directors to appoint a revision committee for the documents. The committee, which should work together with the association attorney, should review all of the bylaws and develop suggested changes as necessary.

Some of the most common provisions of the association documents which may benefit from updates include those pertaining to voting, collections, leasing and fining procedures. Many associations are implementing amendments to limit voting rights to members who are not delinquent in their financial obligations to the association, and some are addressing recent statutory amendments authorizing electronic voting. Other associations are incorporating amendments to maximize their ability to recover attorney’s fees incurred for collection efforts, ban short-term rentals using websites such as Airbnb and other online listing services, strengthen their ability to fine members who refuse to comply with the community’s rules, and address rules involving pets and the use of the community’s amenities by members who are in arrears to the association.

Once the committee has identified changes to the bylaws that it would like to propose, they should present them to the board of directors. If the board approves, the committee should then work on drafting the amendments with the association’s legal counsel to ensure their enforceability and the likelihood of their adoption.

Before the proposed amendments are put to the membership for a vote, they should be presented and discussed with the members during the association’s monthly meetings or in special meetings that are called expressly for the purpose of proposing and considering the changes.

In order to facilitate the adoption of proposed amendments, they should be scheduled for votes at times during which higher voter turnout is expected, such as during the annual meeting. The text of the proposed amendments should be included in the delivery of notice for the meeting and its agenda, and the use of limited proxies should be considered for those who cannot attend the meeting in person.

While the process for changing a community association’s governing documents can be difficult and tedious, it is unwise for associations to ignore outdated provisions in their bylaws or avoid implementing important changes that can provide significant benefits.

MichaelChapnicksrhl-law.jpgFirm partner Michael E. Chapnick wrote an article that appeared in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s only business daily and official court newspaper, about the recent decision by the Second District Court of Appeal in the case of John and Annmarie Amelio v. Marilyn Pines Unit II Condominium Association. His article reads:

The appellate ruling . . . reversed the trial court’s decision to deny a mandatory injunction against the association. The Amelios filed suit for a mandatory injunction and damages against the association due to its failure to adequately address and resolve the problems caused by moisture seeping through the slab on which their unit sits.

The couple first noticed the excessive moisture in their residence in 2010 when it began to cause water damage to the unit and its contents. The association responded by bringing in a leak detection service, which determined that there was excessive moisture in the slab not caused by a leak.

The association retained an engineering firm in March 2011 to inspect the slab, and the firm recommended the installation of a moisture barrier over the slab and an exterior drainage system. It then took the association until December 2011 to hire a different engineering firm for the design and installation of the drainage system, which was not completed until more than a year later in early 2013. However, high levels of water intrusion and moisture continued to plague the unit.

The association retained the original engineering firm, which again recommended a moisture barrier, and it contracted with another company for the addition of the moisture barrier. Unfortunately, the barrier was not installed in accordance with the engineering firm’s specifications, and the concrete slab may have been too soft and powdery for it to be effective. The Amelios’ residence continued to be damaged by moisture intrusion, and it eventually became uninhabitable as the association refused to take any further action.

Michael’s article concludes:

The court found the requirement of irreparable harm satisfied by finding a violation of the Condominium Act and the condominium documents, but it went further and found that the irreparable harm was evidenced by the excessive moisture in the unit, the inability of the association to remedy the situation and the fact that the association had the exclusive duty to make repairs to the slab.

The frequently more difficult element to establish is that of having no adequate remedy at law. Citing Hiles v. Auto Bahn Fed’n., (Fla. 4th DCA 1986), the court stated, “If monetary damages would fully compensate a loss, then this element is not established.”

In reversing the denial of the request for injunctive relief, the appellate panel found that because the association had the exclusive right to remedy the problem and because until it did so the unit would continue to be damaged and uninhabitable, monetary damages would be inadequate to fully compensate the Amelios. Therefore, the unit owners had no adequate relief at law.

The association in this case had been advised from the onset of the problems with the slab in 2010 by its own legal counsel that it was responsible for the maintenance and repair of this component of the property. However, it failed to adequately rectify the problem, and now it will be forced to take immediate actions under the terms of the injunction while also facing the prospect of significant monetary damages to the Amelios.

Our firm congratulates Michael for sharing his insight on this new appellate decision with the readers of the Daily Business Review. Click here to read his complete article in the newspaper’s website (registration required).

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A recent article in The Boston Globe chronicled the case of a condo owner who earned rave reviews as a host on the vacation rental website Airbnb. He went to great lengths to accommodate the needs and whims of his guests, but apparently his willingness to oblige did not extend to his condominium association and fellow neighbors.

The unit owner was fined $9,700 for violating his condominium association’s rules against short-term rentals via the increasingly popular website, which allows users to list their residences for short-term rentals aimed at guests who desire more homey accommodations. The owner has retained an attorney to try to negotiate a lower fine, and he is quoted as saying that he “didn’t expect, as an owner, having somebody else in my own home would be a problem.”

Perhaps he should have known better, as most association’s covenants and rules prohibit short-term rentals, and some even include an application process with background checks for prospective tenants. Yet he and other unit owners are claiming ignorance of the rules after being hit with fines ranging anywhere from $100 to $1,000, depending on their associations’ bylaws, for each night that they have rented their units, according to the newspaper’s report.

With Florida’s countless luxury waterfront condominiums replete with investor-owned units that sit idle during large swaths of the year, the growing popularity of Airbnb and its rivals HomeAway and VRBO represents a potentially significant new problem area that should receive the attention of many association boards throughout the state. The prospect of a revolving door of short-term guests presents security and nuisance concerns, especially for condominiums, and the boards of the state’s condo associations would be well advised to review and possibly strengthen their covenants to specifically ban these types of rentals as well as ensure adequate enforcement provisions and procedures.

For those associations which are already contending with owners who are utilizing these websites for short-term rentals or suspect that it is taking place, their rules enforcement actions should begin with thorough investigations. In a non-confrontational and courteous manner, the property manager or board member should inquire with the new guests in the residences that are suspected of being rented as to the nature of their agreement with the unit owner and how they discovered the property. They should document their findings, and they should also research the websites to find and save the offending listings.

abnb.jpgArmed with this information, they can then move forward on two fronts: directly with the owner as well as with Airbnb or the website listing the unit. Airbnb includes in its terms and conditions for hosts that they must comply with the rules governing rentals in their communities, and the site reserves the right to purge any listings that it deems to be in violation of its terms. Presumably, the company and its rivals would be willing to consider the removal of listings by hosts that are in violation of community association rules, and one of my colleagues at our firm has learned of a case from a client in which Airbnb was contacted by the association and pulled a listing from its site after it learned of the rule violation.

In addition, associations should share the evidence that they have gathered of the rentals using these websites with their legal counsel, who can use the information to issue an immediate cease and desist letter to the unit owner and help the association to determine an appropriate enforcement mechanism. However, for unit owners who have already begun enjoying the rewards of their rentals, it is a safe bet that they will be reluctant to discontinue them.

For the ardent renters who will refuse to comply with these demands and continue to rent their residences, the association counsel should move quickly to file a Petition for Mandatory Non-Binding Arbitration on the rule violation with the state’s Division of Condominiums, Time Shares and Mobile Homes, administered under the Department of Business & Professional Regulation. The Division of Condominiums, through its Arbitration Division, is equipped to quickly and efficiently conduct arbitrations on disputes involving covenant and rule violations, and its final orders can involve both the issuance of injunctive relief (i.e., requiring someone to do or not do something), as well as requiring the non-prevailing party to pay the reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs of the prevailing party incurred in bringing the action to enforce the association’s covenants and rules.

In the new peer-to-peer sharing economy, Airbnb and the other websites enabling homeowners to rent their residences to short-term guests are here to stay and likely to enjoy continued growth in the years to come. The associations in Florida that wish to avoid these short-term rentals should act now in order to protect the interests of their members.

JeffreyBerlowitz.jpgFirm partner Jeffrey S. Berlowitz wrote an article that appeared in today’s edition of the Miami Herald’s “Business Monday” about the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Bank of America v. Caulkett. His article calls for changes to the bankruptcy code to eliminate lien stripping for community associations. It reads:

The Supreme Court ruling does not completely prevent homeowners from canceling second mortgages or other junior lienholders in bankruptcy. Debtors can continue to strip off second mortgages by filing for bankruptcy under either Chapter 11 or 13, which are financial reorganization forms of bankruptcy in which they must pay back creditors over a period of time.

For community associations, the ruling will direct the bankruptcy courts to conclude that the secured liens that associations file against units whose owners have not paid their association dues also cannot be wiped away by underwater homeowners in Chapter 7 bankruptcies. Homeowners and condominium associations in Florida have had to contend with record numbers of foreclosures during the meltdown in the housing market, and many owners of units in foreclosure have been filing for bankruptcy protection and using the same “lien stripping” provisions that were extinguished for Chapter 7 bankruptcies by this Supreme Court ruling to wipe away their association liens. This has resulted in significant shortfalls in associations’ finances that have had to be made up by all of the paying unit owners, who are essentially being forced by the delinquent owners to pay more than their fair share.

While the new ruling will benefit community associations by eliminating lien stripping for Chapter 7 bankruptcies, the ruling does not apply to the financial reorganization forms of bankruptcy under Chapter 11 and Chapter 13, in which lien stripping has been particularly abundant for Florida associations. This means that many associations might continue to see their right to collect from delinquent unit owners voided by the bankruptcy courts.

This Supreme Court ruling has shined a spotlight on the lien stripping provisions of the federal bankruptcy code like never before, and the time has come for our country’s lawmakers to take note of the fact that legislative changes are required in order to address the inequities that are caused by these provisions as they now stand. Lien stripping represents a huge windfall for homeowners who fall into foreclosure, fail to pay their association dues and are then able to eliminate 100 percent of their association debt by filing for bankruptcy. The associations maintain the property values of the residences for the benefit of the delinquent homeowners, who end up retaining their home free of their maintenance assessment arrears through their repayment plan approved by the bankruptcy court, and they preserve the collateral of the homeowners’ first-mortgage lenders. The fellow neighbors of the delinquent unit owner end up footing the bill, which in some cases reach six figures after years of nonpayment, while the debtor and their mortgage lender reap the rewards of a properly maintained property at no expense to either of them.

While the U.S. bankruptcy code is a federal law and the laws governing condominium associations and HOAs are state laws, the lawmakers from states such as Florida, which is the state with the most associations at approximately 46,000, should now consider changes to the federal bankruptcy code that would enable community association liens to take a higher priority. Due to the special role that the associations play in preserving the underlying collateral for home mortgages, their liens should either be exempt from lien stripping altogether or there should be some form of a surcharge against the first mortgage lender to force it to pay the association that is maintaining its collateral.

Our firm congratulates Jeffrey for sharing his insight into this important Supreme Court ruling with the readers of the Miami Herald and calling for the elimination of lien stripping against community associations by unit owners who file for bankruptcy. Click here to read his complete article in the newspaper’s website.

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The recent news about the start of a three-year jail sentence for the former property manager of a Sarasota, Fla.-area condominium who was convicted of stealing more than $200,000 from the association she managed sent a resounding message about the severe repercussions that property managers and association directors can face for theft and fraud.

According to several news reports, Judy Paul, 51 (pictured below), was sentenced to three years in prison followed by 10 years of probation, and was ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution to the Sand Cay Homeowners Association, following her conviction in July, 2013, on felony counts including grand theft and scheming to defraud more than $50,000. It was further reported that Paul was scheduled to surrender at a court hearing on July 1 but failed to appear. The reports state that when she subsequently appeared in court at a later date, she pleaded with the judge for mercy, claiming that she suffered from several medical conditions including uncontrollable bowels, post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the conviction, and that she attempted to end her life two days before she was originally scheduled to surrender.

jpal.jpgPaul’s case was the first to be brought to trial by the White Collar Crime Division of the State Attorney’s Office formed in 2013. Her fraud was discovered when a routine 2009 audit uncovered more than 50 checks that she had issued and cashed or deposited into her own bank accounts. Evidence presented at the trial revealed that she also purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with association funds, and the unit owners were forced to cover the association’s shortfalls through assessments.

This case underscores the importance for association directors and property managers to implement procedures and policies aimed at avoiding the theft of association funds by those who are typically authorized to have access to them. These efforts may include requiring that at least two board members sign all checks and review documentation supporting the invoice or obligation to be paid, the requirement for background checks and screenings for managers and employees, the thorough review of all bank statements and financial records presented to directors and managers, the establishment of low limits on discretionary expense approvals by the property manager without board authorization, and a detailed review and understanding by directors of the association’s yearly financial audits performed by independent professionals. Directors should also coordinate with the association’s insurance agent to confirm that the association is adequately insured to best protect against such instances of fraud, theft and other types of employment dishonesty.

The severe prison sentence and financial restitution imposed in this case against the convicted former property manager should send a compelling message to unscrupulous managers and association directors who contemplate taking part in schemes to defraud and steal from their association.

MichaelHyman.jpgThe firm’s Michael L. Hyman wrote an article that appeared in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s only business daily and official court newspaper, about the recent decision by the First District Court of Appeal in the case of Silver Shells v. St. Maarten at Silver Shells Condominium Association. His article reads:

The First DCA’s decision in the case of Silver Shells v. St. Maarten at Silver Shells Condominium Association stems from a lawsuit by the Destin condominium association for one of the towers in a multi-building property against the developer.

The suit sought to require the developer to turn over control of the master association to the unit owners and convey a “beach property” that was initially included in the common properties which it was required to convey to the master association at the time of turnover.

The appellate court found that the association’s claim that the developer improperly amended restrictive covenants to effectively remove the beach property in question from the common properties is barred by the statute of limitations.

The opinion held that the five-year limitations period began to run when the association for the building was turned over to the unit owners, and the association’s action had not been filed within five years of that date.

Michael’s article concludes:

The takeaway from this ruling for this condominium association as well as other new condo associations in similar master-association communities is that the clock starts ticking on their limitations period to challenge any of the developer’s actions on the date in which their building’s association is turned over by the developer to the unit owners.

The developer will continue to have the “power of the pen” to implement any amendments that it sees fit to the covenants for the master association while it maintains control during the build out of the community, so it is incumbent on the associations for the individual towers that have already been turned over to the unit owners to maintain a careful eye on all of the developer’s amendments and, when necessary, challenge them before their limitation periods expire.

In this case, the association’s challenge to the developer’s amendment that enabled it to retain ownership of the beach property, which apparently included a lucrative ongoing revenue stream for the rental of beach chairs and umbrellas, may have prevailed had it been filed before the five-year limitations period had expired.

Our firm congratulates Michael for sharing his insight on this new appellate decision with the readers of the Daily Business Review. Click here to read his complete article in the newspaper’s website (registration required).

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GaryMars.jpgThe firm’s Gary M. Mars was one of only three South Florida community association attorneys whose analysis was featured in a front-page report in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review headlined “Law Cracks Down on Owners Harboring Fake Service Pets.” The article by reporter Samantha Joseph of the DBR, which is South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper, focuses on the new state law that creates penalties for association members who try to pass off their pets as service animals. It reads:

Thanks to the new law that now makes it a misdemeanor to lie about an animal’s skill-set as a designated helper to a disabled owner, condo associations have fresh ammunition to enforce their pet policies.

The law, unanimously approved by state legislators, took effect July 1. It amends existing legislation by elaborating on the tasks performed by service animals.

. . . The new legislation redefines “service animal,” for the purposes of public accommodation and limits the term to a dog or miniature horse.

It seeks to protect a broader cross section of people by expanding the existing state law’s definition of disability “deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired or otherwise physically disabled.”

The new law covers “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” like walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.

It protects people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, and mental or psychological disorders specified in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

It also goes one step further than its predecessor to require the animal’s tasks be directly related to the handler’s disability.

“What the legislation really did was provide some clarification,” said Gary Mars, shareholder at Siegfried Rivera Hyman Lerner De La Torre Mars & Sobel. “As association lawyers, it gives us a better definition of service pets, which prior to this legislation had less definition.”

Our firm congratulates Gary for being called on by the editors and reporters of the Daily Business Review for his insight into this important new legislation for community associations. Click here to read the complete article in the newspaper’s website (registration required).

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Our firm’s other community association attorneys and I are often asked by condominium association board members about the rights of tenants who are renting units in a condominium to use the common elements – as well as their ability to participate and vote in meetings and elections.

The Condominium Act provides that tenants who are leasing units in communities “shall have all use rights in the association property and those common elements otherwise readily available for use generally by unit owners.” This means that associations must allow renters to have the same use rights as unit owners to the pool, fitness center, clubhouse, tennis court, etc. Renters may also use the parking spaces designated for their unit.

For unit owners who are leasing their residences, the law also provides that they “shall not have such rights except as a guest, unless such rights are waived in writing by the tenant.” The law further provides: “The association shall have the right to adopt rules to prohibit dual usage by a unit owner and a tenant of association property and common elements otherwise readily available for use generally by unit owners.” tenright.jpg This means that owners who rent out their units may not also come by to swim in the pool whenever they want!

With regard to association meetings and voting, tenants do not typically have the right to attend meetings because they are not owners, however, tenants who are conferred with a Power of Attorney by their unit owners may attend and speak at the association meetings. Voting rights and requirements for board membership are generally document specific and can be found in the association’s bylaws.

Another issue that often arises is whether condominiums can prohibit tenants from having pets even if the governing documents allow unit owners to have pets. The issue turns on the exact language in an association’s governing documents. Many board members are surprised to learn that they may adopt rules that restrict tenants from having pets based on the language in their recorded documents – but this is not always the case. Many association documents require a unit owner vote to amend the documents in order to restrict tenants from having pets.

Finally, if a tenant or their landlord/unit owner violates the association’s rules and regulations or other governing documents, the Condominium Act has empowered the association to restrict the tenant’s ability to use the common elements. This also applies to the tenants of unit owners who become more than 90 days delinquent in the payment of their association dues.

With so many investor-owned units in South Florida condominium communities, significant percentages of tenants under short and long-term leases are likely to be a permanent characteristic. Associations should bear in mind that laws do exist to protect tenants’ rights in order to help ensure that associations avoid the possibility of unforeseen legal liabilities.

LisaLerner.jpgThe firm’s Lisa A. Lerner authored an editorial feature about the nuances of construction contracts for condominium associations that appears in the July/August issue of Brickell Magazine, one of South Florida’s premier lifestyle magazines. Her article discusses the protections for associations that experienced attorneys recommend and include in their clients’ construction contracts.

Our firm congratulates Lisa for sharing her insight into this important topic with the readers of Brickell Magazine. Click here to read her feature in the magazine’s website.

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MichaelChapnicksrhl-law.jpgFor the second consecutive day, an article on important issues for community associations authored by one of our firm’s partners appeared today as a guest column in the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s only business daily and official court newspaper. Partner Michael E. Chapnick with our West Palm Beach office wrote the article in today’s edition of the newspaper about the new electronic voting law for community associations. His article calls for the state’s Division of Condominiums to establish an approval and certification process for the e-voting systems providers. It reads:

“Properly implemented, electronic voting may enable associations to overcome the significant challenges created by so many investor-owned units and part-time residents who frequently do not participate in association votes, making it difficult for many associations to achieve quorum at members’ meetings and elections so that membership action can be taken.

However, there are some important and necessary measures that were built into the new law which will make the initial implementation of electronic voting extremely challenging for many associations.

With the voter identity verification and security protocols that are called for under the new law, online voting for associations will not be as simple as using an existing off-the-shelf electronic survey provider and adapting it for an association vote.

In fact, the vetting process for the vendors purporting to comply with all of the requirements under the new law will take some time, and the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation Division of Condominiums should move quickly to develop a vetting and certification process in order to help all of the associations in Florida to identify the providers that are in compliance with the statutory requirements.”

Michael’s article concludes:

“However, rather than leaving it up to every community association to conduct its own vetting process in order to determine which providers meet all of the law’s requirements, the onus should be on the state agency that oversees and enforces association election regulations as well as the other laws governing associations in Florida to create and implement a new vendor approval and certification process for the providers. The state’s Division of Condominiums is better equipped with the technical resources and expertise that is necessary to properly review and determine whether these online software application providers are implementing e-voting systems that meet all of the requirements and should be certified by the state for use by associations.

Electronic voting will not be a panacea for all of the issues caused by unit owner apathy and absenteeism in association votes and elections. There are many voters who will decline to use it and will wish to continue mailing in the completed ballots or voting in person at the meetings, so it is unlikely to completely replace the traditional voting methods, at least in the near future. It will, however, give the associations an important new tool for their toolbox that should greatly enhance their ability to conduct annual elections and obtain votes regarding alterations, amendments, reserves and other important association matters that require membership approval.

With the help of an effective approval and certification program for the e-voting system providers by the state, associations will be able to turn to electronic voting to help overcome some of the challenges that have plagued their votes and elections for decades.”

Our firm congratulates Michael for sharing his insight with the readers of the Daily Business Review on this important new law for community associations and calling on the state to enact an approval and certification process for the e-voting systems providers. Click here to read the complete article in the newspaper’s website (registration required).

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