A decision earlier this month by the Third District Court of Appeal serves as a good lesson to community associations and their attorneys about the importance of working closely with their process servers to ensure that all of the statutory requirements for service or "constructive service" on unit owners in foreclosure actions are met. In the case of Castro v. Charter Club Inc., the appellate panel reversed a Final Judgment of Foreclosure finding that the search and inquiry performed by the Charter Club condominium association and its attorneys did not satisfy the constructive notice statute, its notice by publication was improper, and the foreclosure judgment against the homeowners was void and must be vacated.
In this case, the association's process server went to the Castro's daughter's home address, which the couple had listed as their alternate address and billing address with the association. The daughter stated that she gave the process server the new address for the Castros, but the server never wrote it down. The process server then went to a wrong address in search of the Castros, and no further attempts were made to revisit the daughter to verify the correct address. The process server also did not advise the daughter that he was there to serve the Castros with a complaint for foreclosure.
In addition, the association had approved the Castros to lease their unit to a tenant who paid rent directly to the association's attorney in order to pay down the past-due assessments. The association received rent payments for two years prior to moving forward with its foreclosure action. The association never attempted to contact the tenants to see if they knew the correct address for the Castros.
As a result, the court found that the association did not use all of the knowledge in its command or extend its inquiry to those persons likely or presumed likely to know the facts that it sought. Its affidavit of diligent search filed with the trial court merely stated that the Castros' residence was unknown, and it failed to provide the information and addresses that were known to the association for the daughter and tenant. The appellate opinion also notes that the process server's return of service affidavit was defective where it stated that the server had discontinued trying to serve the Castros with the complaint and summons "for the reasons detailed in the comments below" but failed to include any such comments.
Pursuant to Florida law, in order to employ "constructive service" on an owner who cannot be located, associations must strictly adhere to the requirements set forth in the statute and reasonably employ the knowledge at its command, make diligent inquiry, and exert an honest and conscientious effort appropriate to the circumstance to acquire the information necessary to enable it to effect personal service on the defendant. The efforts in this case appear to have fallen far short of these requirements, and as a result the association's foreclosure judgment was found to be void and had to be vacated. We encourage condominium associations and HOAs in Florida to exercise diligence in their work with their attorneys and process servers to locate unit owners and ensure proper notice to those unit owners in foreclosure actions.