Florida HOA Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Condominium Association Law

Firm partner Roberto C. Blanch, who has written extensively about community association fraud in this blog and recently authored an article on the topic for the op-ed page of the Miami Herald, appeared on Spanish-language television network AméricaTeVé’s popular “A Fondo” live show hosted by Pedro Sevcec yesterday at 8 p.m.  He was joined by one of the two journalists from el Nuevo Herald behind the newspaper’s investigative series exposing possible fraud at several South Florida condominium communities.  The segment specifically focused on board of directors election fraud, and several cases of suspected fraud were discussed.

Our firm congratulates Roberto for sharing his insights into this important issue with the network’s viewers.  Click below to watch the Spanish-language segment.

 

An article in the Miami Herald that appeared on Saturday, April 16, reported that more than 250 South Florida condo residents teamed up to march against condo fraud last week.  The protestors, who marched on the streets of Doral, demanded that authorities reform condo laws in order to prevent fraudsters from taking advantage of their communities.  The protest included residents from several areas in Miami-Dade County, including Kendall, North Miami Beach and Aventura, as well as from Broward County.

Our firm has been very active in spotlighting this growing problem throughout the years in this blog and in our complimentary educational seminars for association directors, members and managers.  Recently, firm partner Roberto C. Blanch authored an article that appeared in the op-ed page of the Herald calling for greater law enforcement and regulatory efforts to combat association fraud.  Roberto wrote:

MHerald2015Florida is the state with the most community associations in the country, with more than 47,000, and it has now become imperative for the state’s lawmakers, regulators and law enforcement agencies to change their collective mindset in their approach toward combating community association fraud, theft and embezzlement.

Continue reading

GaryMars3

Gary M. Mars

The firm’s Gary M. Mars authored an article that appeared in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  Gary’s article, which was titled “Ruling Reminds New Associations to Watch for Developers Waiving Reserves,” focuses on a recent appellate ruling regarding the issue of developers waiving their funding of reserves prior to the turnover of an association for a new community from the developer to the unit owners.  His article reads:

A recent appellate ruling shined a spotlight on the all-too-common issue of developers improperly waiving their funding of reserve accounts while they retain control of an association for a new community before its turnover to the unit owners.

The ruling served as an important reminder for the owners at new developments of the careful vigilance that they need to exercise for any questions involving the funding and use of reserves by developers.

The ruling was filed by the Fifth District Court of Appeal in the case of Meritage Homes of Florida v. Lake Roberts Landing Homeowner Association. Meritage, the developer of the subdivision located in Winter Garden, appealed the trial court’s final judgment in favor of the homeowner association, which found that the requirement for HOA reserve accounts in the city code of Winter Garden cannot be waived as Meritage had attempted.

Meritage based its appeal on its contention that the lower court’s ruling created an impermissible conflict with section 720.303(6)(f), Florida Statutes, which expressly grants homeowner associations the right to waive reserves. The developer’s initial annual budget planned for the HOA’s operating expenses as well as an $11,000 deferred maintenance reserve account, but it later approved a budget that completely waived its funding of the reserves.

dbr logo-thumb-400x76-51605Meritage asserted that it issued written notice to all of the association members, which included several homeowners at that point, but none of the members other than Meritage attended the budget meeting in which the board members approved the budget sans reserves.

Continue reading

Our firm’s other community association attorneys and I often receive questions from association members, directors and managers about the Florida law requiring that high-rise condominium towers must have automatic fire sprinkler or Engineered Life Safety systems in place by the end of 2019.

I have developed a simple and brief overview of the Florida Fire Prevention Code (FFPC) that is now posted in our firm’s website.  The three-page document explains that the FFPC defines “high-rise building” to mean a building that is greater than 75 feet in height, with the height being measured from the lowest level of fire department access to the floor of the highest occupiable level.  It mandates that all such buildings other than those with an approved Engineered Life Safety System (ELSS) must be protected throughout by an approved and supervised automatic sprinkler system no later than December 31, 2019.

Continue reading

Roberto C. Blanch

Roberto C. Blanch

Firm partner Roberto C. Blanch was quoted by reporter Carla Vianna of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s only business daily and official court newspaper, in an article that appeared in today’s edition about the issues facing community associations involving short-term rentals via Airbnb.  The article reads:

Guests hoping to stay at a condo during the Miami Open tennis tournament found themselves stuck in a lobby with no access to the unit they rented on Airbnb, the online home-sharing service.

The family was denied keys to the property by the condominium’s management company.

. . . Miami-Dade County’s sunny beaches and high-rise condos make it a top destination for home-sharing networks like Airbnb and its users. The influx of visitors opting for alternatives to Miami’s pricey hotel rooms, like the family visiting for the Miami Open, is pushing demand for short-term rental options.

An estimated $2.4 billion was spent on lodging via Airbnb during the year ended in September 2015, commercial real estate firm CBRE Inc. reported. More than 55 percent was captured by five U.S. cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Boston.

The rise of a sharing economy is creating a rift between condo owners looking to make extra cash and association boards whose members don’t want to share an elevator with strangers.

. . . “It has become a problem in a lot of condos,” said Roberto Blanch, a Miami attorney with Siegfried, Rivera, Hyman, Lerner, De La Torre, Mars & Sobel.

dbr logo-thumb-400x76-51605Associations at Mint and Ivy, two high-rise towers in downtown Miami’s Riverfront complex on the Miami River, are cracking down by restricting elevator and garage access to residents with a specific key fob or vehicle barcode, said Ari Tenzer, founder of the Tenzer law firm. Tenzer, who sits on his condo association board, said property managers are logging onto the Airbnb site themselves to catch violators.

Suspected violators receive written notice as a warning. They could also be called before a grievance committee.

Continue reading

RobertoBlanch2013Firm shareholder Roberto C. Blanch wrote an article that appears in the op-ed “Opinions” page of today’s Miami Herald pegged to the ongoing investigative series by el Nuevo Herald that is being featured in the Herald.  The article, which was titled “Florida Must Improve Policing of Condo Fraud,” focuses on the need for changes in the state law enforcement and government’s collective mindset towards combating condominium association fraud.

Roberto’s article reads:

An investigative report in el Nuevo Herald chronicled the growing problem of election fraud at South Florida condominium associations. Based on the episodes of possible fraud uncovered by the reporters and the growing number of complaints by local condo associations, it has become apparent that it’s time to put teeth into Florida’s laws and enforcement actions addressing this type of fraud.

The report uncovered that at least 84 signatures were forged in fraudulent ballots submitted in the annual board member election last year at The Beach Club at Fontainebleau Park condominium in northwest Miami-Dade. It also describes how the election at the Los Sueños condo in Hialeah was anything but a dream when it resulted in an unprecedented voter turnout of 115 percent after the final vote tally exceeded the total voting pool.

The boards of directors control the purse strings for the communities they govern, and many communities have annual budgets of multiple millions of dollars that are used for a variety of lucrative service contracts. As such, condo association boards make for appealing targets for fraudsters who conspire to take over their control via annual elections.

MHerald2015In a recent case in Las Vegas, a U.S. Justice Department investigation revealed that 11 associations were defrauded of tens of millions of dollars in a board of directors takeover scheme from 2003 to 2009. Forty-one defendants were convicted of getting their straw unit buyers elected to the associations’ boards through tactics involving forgery, bribery, ballot stuffing and dirty tricks. The conspirators were found to have rigged the associations’ elections by traveling to Mexico to print phony ballots, using the master key at a condominium complex in order to remove ballots from mailboxes, and retrieving discarded ballots from condo dumpsters.

Continue reading

Can snakes, the animal commonly known for instilling panic upon sight, actually help to ease anxiety?  According to snake owner Darla McGinnis, they can.

WCVB-Channel 5 (ABC) in Boston recently covered a story about McGinnis and her fight with the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa, which currently has a ban on its residents having snakes as pets.

McGinnis — who suffers from anxiety and is pictured below together with her daughter and their pet pythons — claims that her pets are the only things that help to put her at ease.

essnakeHowever, the city isn’t budging.  Albeit recognizing the importance of emotional support animals, Council Bluffs refuses to circumvent its code to grant her the special accommodation that she allegedly needs.

Rather, McGinnis has to travel across state lines to neighboring Omaha, Nebraska, in order to see her loving reptiles.  In the meantime, she intends to continue to battle the ban in hopes to change the existing city code.

Click here to watch the report on WCVB’s website.

Associations have been counseled for the last several years to move quickly to foreclose on units in cases of prolonged lender foreclosures so that they could utilize these residences to reap rental income while the bank cases languish. However, a recent ruling by the Fourth District Court of Appeal serves as a reminder of the pivotal importance of properly undertaking required procedural steps and executing service of process on all of the owners and other defendants in foreclosure cases prior to moving on to trials and judgments.

The appellate panel in the case of Frank Reilly v. U.S. Bank National Association found in favor of the defendant Reilly and reversed the lower court’s final judgment of foreclosure. It found that the case was not yet “at issue,” meaning ready for disposition, when the Broward circuit court issued a final judgment for the lender because the lender had not obtained a default against Reilly nor had Reilly filed an answer. Accordingly, the final judgment as to Reilly was reversed, and the case was sent back to the circuit court for further proceedings.

The appellate court also confirmed that Reilly must be allowed to raise his service of process challenges against the lender because they had not been considered by the circuit court. pserverHis service of process challenge stemmed from the lender’s claims that it attempted to find him but he was dodging its process servers, so it served him by publication. Had these issues simply been presented to the circuit court in the original proceedings, the challenge by Reilly and associated delays may have been avoided.

The lesson here for associations and lenders pursuing foreclosure cases is that their judgments can be completely undone if they fail to undertake required procedural steps or cut corners in the servicing of process for owners or other defendants in these lawsuits. Associations must rely on qualified and highly experienced process servers to properly service foreclosure lawsuits to owners, who oftentimes do everything in their power to evade them and avoid being served with the suit. In some cases, this may require retaining the process servers to stake out an owner at their work or residence, and it may take several attempts before the process servers are able to serve a defendant with the lawsuit as prescribed under Florida law.

These expenses should be considered part of the cost of doing business in the prosecution of foreclosure actions by associations, which should take note of this and other similar appellate rulings and avoid cursory and unsuccessful service processing in favor of service by publication. Otherwise, they are risking the very real possibility of increased legal and administrative costs by having their foreclosure rulings overturned and remanded for further proceedings.

The start of a new year represents a slew of new beginnings for most community associations. From holding annual elections to the preparation of annual budgets, the first quarter of the year marks a pivotal time for many associations. With that comes a great deal of confusion, particularly with regard to the proper way to fund reserves.

Contrary to common misconceptions, Florida Statutes require that associations must present a fully funded reserve to their fellow unit owners. An association may also present to the membership the option of either waiving reserves, or funding reserves less than fully, but it is not required to do so.

Reserves are used by associations to fund capital expenditures and items of deferred maintenance. Some reserve categories are mandatory (e.g., roofing, painting, paving, and any item expected to cost in excess of $10,000), while others are discretionary (e.g., insurance premiums). However, once a reserve fund is established, the monies dedicated to each category, including interest, may only be used for that category (unless the membership approves an alternate use).

According to Chapter 718.112(2)(f) of Florida Statutes, Florida condos must fully fund reserve accounts for capital expenditures and deferred maintenance. The amount to be reserved must be computed using a formula based upon the estimated remaining useful life and estimated replacement cost or deferred maintenance expense of each reserve item.

Now, what happens if once presented with a fully funded reserve account the association becomes interested in waiving or reducing all or specific reserve items? A vote must occur. Not only must a quorum be established in order for voting to take place, but a majority of the owners must be present either in person or by proxy in order to approve any changes.

Keep in mind that it is possible that certain owners will be voting via limited proxies. Should that be the case, special language must be included on the face of the proxy ballot, in capitalized, bold lettering, that should read as follows: WAIVING OF RESERVES, IN WHOLE OR IN PART, OR ALLOWING ALTERNATIVE USES OF EXISTING RESERVES MAY RESULT IN UNIT OWNER LIABILITY FOR PAYMENT OF UNANTICIPATED SPECIAL ASSESSMENTS REGARDING THOSE ITEMS.

Should a majority of the quorum of members not agree to waive or reduce the reserve account, then the association is responsible for fully funding the account. Whatever your association decides, keep in mind that the decision is only good for the particular year in question, and the whole process will have to be done again on the following year.

A recent arbitration ruling over a request to inspect the official records of a condominium association by a unit owner as prescribed under Florida law should serve as a reminder to all Florida community associations that they cannot impose rules and prerequisites that are outside of the scope of the statute to deny such requests.

The ruling by an arbitrator with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Division of Condominiums in the case of August E. Hawkins v. Points West Condominium Association involved a denial by the association of the unit owner’s request to access the current list and contact information for all of the unit owners. The association based its denial on a rule that was adopted by its board of directors stating that all association fees and debts must be current in order for unit owners to be granted access to its official documents and records. The association claimed that Hawkins owed $600 in attorney fees to the association for its prior issuance of a demand letter.

floridadbprThe arbitrator ruled that Florida law stipulates associations “may adopt reasonable rules regarding the frequency, time, location, notice and manner of record inspections and copying” of official records, but it may not create any other category of rules or prerequisites that owners must meet in order to gain access to the official records. The ruling concludes that there is no language in the Condominium Act which authorizes an association to institute debt collection procedures which interfere with an owner’s entitlement to access to official records. It finds the rule to be null and void and unenforceable, and the association’s failure to allow access to the records to be in violation of the law.

The arbitrator concluded that the association must grant access to the records within 10 days of the ruling and pay $500 as statutory damages to the unit owner for its willful violation of the official records statute. In addition, Florida law provides that the prevailing party in these proceedings is entitled to have the other party pay reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.

Associations that seek to impose any sort of rule, regulation or prerequisite involving records requests by unit owners should bear this ruling in mind and seek the guidance of qualified legal counsel.