Slide - Personalized Professionalism
Slide - Dedicated Legal Team
Slide - Continuity
Slide - Expertise
Slide - Individual Attention

Florida HOA Lawyer Blog

RobertoBlanch2013.jpgFirm partner Roberto C. Blanch 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 Andrews v. Shipps’s Landing Condominium Association. His article reads:

“. . . The Second DCA found that the association did not conclusively establish that the removal of the drywall ceiling resulted in a violation of the association’s declaration of condominium.

The association asserted that the owners did not obtain its approval before removing the ceiling drywall from the interior of the unit and demanded that the owners reinstall the drywall. In turn, the owners responded by filing a lawsuit against the association for declaratory and injunctive relief.

While the trial court record indicates that the owners requested and obtained association approval for certain alterations to the unit, it appears that the nature of the alterations were not precisely described by the owners when seeking the association approval.

Furthermore, while the appellate opinion indicates that the owners opted to remove the ceiling drywall during the performance of the previously approved alterations, it appears that the association did not provide any testimony to counter the testimony proffered on behalf of the owners interpreting that the declaration of condominium establishes that the drywall ceiling is within the unit’s boundaries.”

Roberto’s article concludes:

“Association representatives should also consider standardizing the process for unit owner requests for alteration approval, should it be determined that the association’s directors have the authority to grant such approval. For instance, it appears from the opinion that the association in question did not have a clear procedure or form for the requests for renovation approvals requiring detailed descriptions of the proposed alterations.

A form with detailed questions regarding all of the elements that will be renovated should be employed, and the approvals should include stipulations that only the renovations detailed in the form by the owners are being approved and no other elements may be altered without the association’s prior written approval.

. . . It is also imperative for associations to act promptly when seeking recourse or corrective actions against an owner if it is determined that an alteration has been made in a manner that is inconsistent with the design approved by the association. An association’s failure to do so may adversely affect its ability to successfully do so in the future.”

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

dbrlogo.jpg

JeffreyBerlowitz.jpgThe firm’s Jeffrey S. Berlowitz, who has focused much of his work on helping community associations to contend with unit owners who attempt to wipe away association liens by filing for bankruptcy, was quoted extensively in an article in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review on the implications of the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Bank of America v. Caulkett. The court ruled that homeowners who are underwater on their first mortgage cannot void second mortgages by filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and the ruling also appears to apply to other secured lienholders including community associations.

The article reads:

Jeffrey Berlowitz is optimistic that within the risky realm of second mortgages, the Supreme Court’s ruling may help refresh the lending stream that dried up in the market crash.

“You may see second mortgages being extended if there’s equity,” said Berlowitz of Coral Gables-based Siegfried, Rivera, Hyman, Lerner, De La Torre, Mars & Sobel, which represents community associations.

Still, a divisive footnote in the decision suggests if only the debtors had asked the court to overrule its 1992 decision in Dewsnup v. Timm, the court would have obliged. Three justices didn’t join Thomas’ footnote, meaning they could be outvoted 6-3 if the right case came along.

Dewsnup rejected one form of lien-stripping. The footnote quotes Thomas’ concurrence in a 1999 opinion: the “methodological confusion created by Dewsnup has enshrouded both the Courts of Appeal and … Bankruptcy Courts.”

Berlowitz said, “Thomas’ comments could lead us to believe the court could overrule Dewsnup down the road.” Then lien-stripping would be available in Chapter 7 cases, allowing debtors to void wholly unsecured mortgages. And partially unsecured mortgages could be stripped down to the property’s market value.

For now, Berlowitz is happily sharing the ruling with his condo board clients. They’ve been frustrated by homeowners who fail to pay their fees through months or years of foreclosure and bankruptcy while the association maintains the community.

“There’s such animus for the folks who aren’t paying while their neighbors are,” he said. “I had to explain to our clients this is the law, I’m not making it up.”

Our firm congratulates Jeffrey for sharing his insight into this ruling and its implications for community associations with the readers of the Daily Business Review, which is South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper. Click here to read the complete article in the newspaper’s website (registration required).

dbrlogo.jpg

LindseyTLehr.jpg

The firm’s Lindsey Thurswell Lehr 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 implications of the recent decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in the case of Pudlit 2 Joint Venture v. Westwood Gardens HOA. Her article reads:

. . . Pudlit had acquired two lots in the Westwood Gardens community via foreclosure, for which the association demanded payment for the past-due assessments that had accrued while Pudlit held the titles to the properties as well as all assessments due from the prior owner, as stipulated under Florida law.

Pudlit made the payment to the association but filed suit against the association seeking its money back by claiming that it was exempted from liability for the prior owners’ association debts due to the express language contained in the association’s own declaration of covenants, which read:

“The lien of the assessments provided for herein shall be superior to all other liens save and except tax liens and mortgage liens, provided said mortgage liens are first liens against the property encumbered thereby (subject only to tax liens). Sale or transfer of any lot which is subject to a mortgage as herein described, pursuant to a decree of foreclosure thereof, shall extinguish the lien of such assessments as to payments thereof which become due prior to such sale or transfer. No sale or transfer shall relieve such Lot from liability for any assessments thereafter becoming due or from the lien thereof.”

Lindsey’s article concludes:

The appellate panel found that the state law (Florida Statute §720.3085) could not impair or supersede a pre-existing declaration provision, as that would infringe on the prohibitions against the impairment of contract rights and freedom to contract under the state’s constitution. The appellate court found that as a successor to the mortgage holder, Pudlit is a third-party beneficiary of the HOA’s declaration and the protections which it provides.

The court also noted that the language under Chapter 720 of the Florida Statutes indicating that it is “not intended to impair such contract rights” that were “effective before the effective date of the act” made the existing law inapplicable in this case.

. . . In assessing the implications of this ruling, community association directors and managers should bear in mind that most associations do not have the restrictive language in their declarations nullifying a successor’s liability for the previous owner’s fees that was at issue in the Pudlit case. In addition, most association governing documents include a provision stating that all new state laws governing condominiums and homeowners associations are deemed to be expressly incorporated into their declarations.

However, this new appellate opinion, which is the first of its kind at the appellate level in the state, should serve as a notification to all community associations in Florida to review their declarations in order to determine if the language that was at issue in this case is found in their governing documents. If it is, they would be well-served to seek the guidance of qualified legal counsel in order to amend their governing documents through the membership meeting and voting process.

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

dbrlogo.jpg

In 1996, the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion regarding the activities of licensed community association managers (CAM) that would constitute the unlicensed practice of law. In 2013, The Florida Bar weighed in on the issue when its Standing Committee on Unlicensed Practice of Law submitted a report to the state’s highest court for its consideration. On May 14, 2015, the Court filed its final opinion based on the Bar’s submission.

The Court upheld its findings from the 1996 opinion and adopted all of the recommendations provided by the Bar in its 2013 report. The Court found that the following tasks performed by CAMs are not considered the unlicensed practice of law:

  • Preparation of a certificate of assessments due once the delinquent account is turned over to the attorney for the association
  • Preparation of a certificate of assessments due once foreclosure against the unit has commenced
  • Preparation of a certificate of assessments due once the member disputes in writing to the association the amount alleged as owed
  • Drafting pre-arbitration demand letters

The Court ruled that the following tasks performed by CAMs are considered the unlicensed practice of law:

  • Drafting of amendments to the declaration, bylaws, and articles of incorporation that are recorded in the public records when such documents are to be voted on by the members
  • Preparation of construction lien documents
  • Preparation, review, drafting and/or substantial involvement in the preparation/execution of contracts, including construction contracts, management contracts, cable television contracts, and others
  • Any activity that requires statutory or case law analysis to reach a legal conclusion

flasupcourt.jpgThe Court found that the following tasks performed by CAMs may or may not be considered the unlicensed practice of law, depending upon the facts and circumstances involved in each case:

  • Determination of the number of days to be provided for a statutory notice
  • Modification of limited proxy forms
  • Preparation of documents concerning the right of the association to approve new prospective owners and/or tenants
  • Determination of affirmative votes needed to pass a proposition or amendment to recorded documents
  • Determination of votes needed to establish a quorum
  • Identifying, through the review of title instruments, the owners who are to receive pre-lien letters

The Court’s ruling includes examples that help to clarify whether or not these activities constitute the unlicensed practice of law. Click here to read the complete ruling and the examples that are provided for each of these tasks.

With the upsurge in collections and the issuance of demand letters and claims of lien by associations, many CAMs have responded to their association’s needs by taking on the preparation of these documents rather than turning to the association attorney. This has led to cases in which demand letters and claims of lien have been invalidated due to mistakes in legal descriptions and recording errors. Association boards should bear in mind that the preparation of demand letters, claims of lien, Notices of Commencement and other legal documents do not typically incur significant attorney fees, but the ramifications of errors in these documents can prove to be very costly. If The Florida Bar determines that a property manager has engaged in the unlicensed practice of law, that manager could face the imposition of fines as well as the possibility of having their CAM license revoked or suspended. It is simply not worth the risk for associations or their managers to prepare these documents in order to avoid the relatively nominal legal fees, and thereby risk exposure to their managers of potential fines and license issues.

Yogi Berra once said “it ain’t over ’till it’s over.” That statement perfectly describes the most recent decision to come out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal dealing with a unit owner’s request for a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988 (FHAA) to keep an emotional support animal despite her association’s restrictions.

The case of Carolyn Hoffman v. Leisure Village, Inc. of Stuart, Fla. actually involved two dogs. As to the first dog, Hoffman and her association ended up in litigation which resulted in a settlement agreement whereby the association allowed her to keep the dog, with the understanding that she would not get another dog after it passed away, and if she did get another one she would have to move from Leisure Village.

Upon the death of her dog in 2010, Hoffman was diagnosed with chronic depression and her psychiatrist recommended that she get another dog to support her emotionally. Her attorney made a request to Leisure Village for an accommodation under the FHAA, but the request was denied. She got the dog anyway.

esupdog.jpgThe association then went back into court and asked the judge to enforce the settlement agreement. At the same time, Hoffman filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) claiming that she was wrongfully denied an accommodation of her disability under the FHAA, and her complaint was ultimately sent to the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) for investigation. Before FCHR could finish its investigation, the trial court ordered Hoffman to remove her dog from the association.

When FCHR completed its investigation three months later and found cause to believe that a fair housing violation had occurred, Hoffman first tried to file a claim in federal court, and then back in state court, claiming discrimination. The court dismissed her case, saying that she had waived her right to bring a new claim and all of the issues had already been decided in the case relating to her first dog.

The Fourth DCA found that the trial court did not even have the authority to decide Hoffman’s discrimination claim because while she had started the process of filing complaints with HUD and FCHR, FCHR did not even complete its investigation of the claim until three months after the court dismissed her claims. The court examined the law and found that Hoffman was required to exhaust the administrative process (i.e., filing a discrimination claim with HUD and having that claim investigated to conclusion) before she was entitled to file a lawsuit. The appellate panel reversed the dismissal of her discrimination claim, thereby allowing her to pursue it back in the trial court.

The lesson to be learned from Hoffman and Leisure Village is even when it appears that a fair housing dispute has been resolved by agreement, it is not necessarily over . . . “until it’s over.”

After growing up in the insurance industry as the daughter of one of Florida’s premier policyholder advocates, my exposure to insurance practices began at a remarkably young age. As a dually licensed public adjuster and attorney, I focus on insurance matters for our firm’s community association clients as well as property and business owners. Through my unique upbringing in conjunction with my years of practice, I have learned that virtually all insureds would amass a great benefit by working with a loss consultant and experienced legal counsel when handling an insurance claim.

Two of my recent cases illustrate the benefits for associations and property owners in working with an insurance attorney and public adjuster for their claims. The first case involved a water loss in the common areas of the Cutler Cay Homeowners Association in southeast Miami-Dade. Upon discovering the loss, the association filed its insurance claim with its insurance company without first consulting a public adjuster or an attorney that specializes in insurance litigation. As a result, the insurance company denied the association’s claim and concluded that the loss was not covered under the association’s insurance policy.

After unsuccessfully dealing with its insurance company for more than two years, the association contacted our firm to enlist our services. Our firm closely worked with a public adjuster to determine the full extent of the insured’s damage. Within several months of filing a lawsuit on the association’s behalf, we were able to effectively demonstrate the clear coverage for the association’s loss and recover over $269,000 for the association.

water.jpgThe second case involved two separate water-related losses at a single-family home in Broward County. The homeowner immediately retained a public adjuster to assist in the filing and presentation of her claims. In both claims, the homeowner received payment from her insurance company, although the insurance company’s payments were insufficient to restore the home to its pre-loss condition. When negotiations between the public adjuster and the insurance company reached a stalemate, the insured contacted our firm. In less than four months, we were able to recover approximately five times the amount of the insurance company’s prior payments.

These cases highlight the importance for associations and homeowners of working with experienced insurance attorneys and public adjusters for their insurance claims. Ideally, it is best to retain the services of these professionals prior to the filing of a claim, as their guidance and experience can play a pivotal role in how the claim is handled by the insurance company and ultimately whether the claim is adequately paid. However, it is never too late to enlist these insurance professionals, even if the insurance company denied or issued payment for your claim, as we can often re-open the claim to secure additional funds.

susanodess-srhl.jpgThe firm’s Susan C. Odess, who focuses exclusively on insurance law and represents community associations as well as individual residential and commercial property owners in insurance matters, wrote the following guest column that appeared in the May 25 edition of the Miami Herald’s “Business Monday” section:

Citizens Property Insurance is commonly known as the insurer of last resort, as it traces its roots to the exodus of insurance carriers from the Florida market after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The state-run insurer has earned a poor reputation for its mishandling of claims, but for many homeowners, condominium associations and businesses in the state’s coastal areas it has been their only option.

Unfortunately for all of those who must remain with Citizens for their insurance coverage, a ruling filed on May 14 by the Supreme Court of Florida will now make the insurer considerably less accountable for its actions in its handling of claims than it has been in the past. The ruling is undoubtedly the worst that has ever come from the Florida courts for the state’s approximately 595,000 Citizens policyholders, and it demands a simple and immediate legislative fix during the special session in June.

The court’s decision in the case of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. v. Perdido Sun Condominium Association has completely shielded the insurer from liability for acting in bad faith. The ruling revokes, exclusively for Citizens, one of the most powerful tools that policyholders and their advocates have to hold Citizens accountable during the claims process. Under the law, insurers owe a duty of good faith and fair dealing to their policyholders, and they are thereby legally liable for using unfair, dishonest or deceptive practices in their claims and underwriting processes. If the carriers unreasonably delay investigations, deny claims, underpay claims, fail to timely respond to claims, fail to issue coverage decisions, withhold coverage documentation, cancel policies, or conduct other egregious acts they can face bad faith lawsuits for punitive and exemplary sums that go beyond the coverage limits under the standard breach-of-contract claims.

flasupcourt.jpgAfter conflicting decisions by two of the state’s district courts of appeal, the Supreme Court of Florida took up the question of whether the Legislature intended for Citizens to be liable for bad faith claims as an exception to its statutory immunity, which as a state agency was based on the principle of sovereign immunity and was enacted by the Legislature to protect the carrier. The case stems from a statutory first-party bad faith suit filed by the Perdido Sun Condominium Association after the association had already prevailed in its breach-of-contract lawsuit against the insurer. The bad faith claim alleged that Citizens refused to pay the full amount owed and take part in the required appraisal process; used the appraisal process in an attempt to forestall litigation; delayed payment of the appraisal award and improperly attempted to condition the payment upon the execution of a universal release; and engaged in a pattern and practice of seeking to avoid or delay the settlement of the claim.

Citizens moved to dismiss the lawsuit by arguing that it is shielded from bad faith lawsuits under its immunity statute. After a review of the statute, the Supreme Court found no support that the Legislature intended for Citizens to be liable for statutory first-party bad faith claims. Even though the Legislature codified Citizens’ duty to handle claims in good faith, it did not list first-party bad faith claims as one of the exceptions to Citizens’ immunity. The court found that if the Legislature had intended to establish an exception for bad faith claims, it would have done so clearly and unequivocally by including it among the limited exceptions to Citizens’ immunity within the statute.

This is precisely what the Legislature should do during the special session in June or during next year’s session. Based on the wording of the statute, lawmakers may have believed that bad faith claims did fall under the exception to Citizens’ immunity for a “willful tort,” but the court ruled that statutory first-party bad faith claims such as the one filed by Perdido Sun are not technically considered a willful tort.

Citizenslogo1.jpgThe end result of the ruling is that Citizens’ policyholders will no longer have the only bargaining chip they had to hold Citizens accountable for how it handles claims. It creates an uneven playing field for Citizens against all of the private-sector carriers in Florida that must act in good faith and avoid dishonest and unfair practices with their policyholders. Citizens will face no legal repercussions or liabilities even if it blatantly disregards its duty to make timely claim decisions and payments, conduct fair and unbiased claim assessments, or respond to routine requests for policy and claim documents. The company will have free rein to act with impunity in how it responds to and handles claims, which has horrific implications for all those who will face the prospect of filing a claim with Citizens in the future.

With the hurricane season starting in June, it is imperative for the Legislature to remedy this ruling by adding bad faith lawsuits to the list of exceptions in the Citizens immunity statute. Without this legislative fix, there will be no constraints for the state-backed insurer to act within the bounds of fairness with its policyholders.

MHerald2015.jpg

For community associations, preserving the property and its common areas is one of the foremost duties of the association directors. Beyond the day-to-day maintenance responsibilities, association directors and managers are responsible to develop funding plans for the upkeep and replacement of common facilities such as elevators, roofs, heating/cooling systems, swimming pools, decks and balconies. These funding plans generally take the form of accumulated budgetary reserves to help spread the anticipated costs of deferred maintenance or capital expenditures for the associations’ common facilities or building components over the estimated remaining useful lives of the components. Maintaining well-funded reserves enables associations to avoid large annual assessment increases or special assessments that can create financial hardship for the unit owners at those times when raising funds is required to perform the necessary deferred maintenance or replacement.

For condominium associations, establishing and funding reserve funds is an obligation of the board, as reserves are statutorily required to be included in condominium association budgets that must be adopted each year. Specifically, condominium associations must maintain reserve funds for roof replacement, exterior paint, pavement resurfacing and all other items for which the replacement or deferred maintenance costs exceed $10,000. Additionally, depending upon certain circumstances, the boards of some homeowners associations may also be required to budget for reserves, depending upon whether it is required by the association’s governing documents as established by the developer or voted for by the association members. While the funding of reserves may be waived or reduced on an annual basis upon obtaining the appropriate membership vote, community association boards may not be automatically required to submit such a question for a vote of the membership.

In an effort to ensure the proper funding of reserves it is in the best interests of most associations to retain highly qualified and experienced consultants to prepare an objective reserve study for the association. These studies are used to assess the actual costs for the ongoing maintenance of all of common facilities and building components. They include a detailed analysis of the current condition of the major components as well as a financial breakdown for their expected maintenance, repair or replacement costs. The experts who prepare these studies use a formula that takes into account the estimated cost of deferred maintenance or replacement as well as the remaining useful life of the component.

In light of the higher costs typically associated with comprehensive reserve studies, some smaller associations have opted for a simpler analysis, such as a Five-Year Capital Plan that is prepared by experienced professionals. Such a plan may be used by the board to determine the level of reserves expected to be required.

In addition to properly establishing and maintaining reserve funding and preventing deficits thereof, association board members have a fiduciary duty to the unit owners to ensure that a community’s reserve funds are protected and invested properly. Risky investments are not appropriate for these funds, and it is highly recommended for associations to turn to qualified professionals for their investment and tax advice. It is also imperative for reserve funds to be accounted for appropriately and accurately in the financial statements, audit reports, budgets and other financial and administrative community association records
dbprlogo.jpgFor condominium associations and their directors, one of the most helpful informational resources related to reserves is available online from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Condominiums. The agency’s “Budgets and Reserve Schedules: A Self-Study Training Manual” is the state’s official training manual for condominium association directors and members on association budgets and reserves. Click here to read and print the manual.

Another very helpful resource for all types of community associations is the “Reserve Studies/Management Best Practices Report” issued by the Foundation for Community Association Research, which is available by clicking here.

Community association board members must consider many factors in order to properly assess and fund their associations’ reserve accounts. With the proper guidance and planning, properly established and funded reserve accounts assist associations to avoid unexpected financial burdens for all of the unit owners.

The premature adjournment “sine die” of the recent session of the Florida House of Representatives spelled the demise of various bills that had not yet been passed. One such bill was HB 611, which was the subject of one of our blog articles describing the various changes that were being proposed by the bill in connection with procedures and charges related to estoppels provided by community associations.

A bill that did pass both the House and Senate is HB 791, which soon will be sent to Gov. Scott for his final approval before it is enacted. This bill makes some important updates to the state’s laws governing community association practices and procedures, and it includes the following changes:

  • The requirement for electronic notices to be authorized by association’s bylaws for some meetings of the board, membership and association committees is eliminated.
  • Establishes that the role of the fining committee is to confirm or reject the fines levied by the board.
  • Suspension of voting rights or right to use common elements will apply to members as well as their tenants and guests, regardless of the number of units owned by the member, even if the delinquency or failure that resulted in the suspension arose from less than all of the multiple units owned by a member.
  • Proxies will be allowed to be submitted to the association via fax or email.
  • When voting rights are suspended, the voting interest allocated to the unit will be subtracted from the total number of voting interests.
  • Establishment of procedures for implementation of electronic online voting for elections and other unit owner votes.
  • A clarification that partial payments may be applied to outstanding amounts.
  • Extends the “Distressed Condominium Act” (i.e., the “bulk buyer” law) until 2018.
  • Amends the official records “catch-all” provision to include “written” records, as already appears in the HOA Act.
  • Names Chapter 720 the “Homeowners’ Association Act.”
  • Provides that the “governing documents” of an HOA include rules and regulations.
  • The failure to provide notice of recording amendment in an HOA does not affect the validity of the amendment.

Most of the foregoing changes help to clarify and update the existing statutes in an effort to enable associations to overcome some problem areas arising in connection with the laws governing condominium, cooperatives and homeowners associations. However, a few of the changes included in the bill, such as the introduction of electronic online voting, are expected to cause considerable issues as directors, managers and their legal counsel work to navigate through the process related to the implementation of such measures.

Association members, directors and community association property managers should be mindful of these changes and work closely with their legal counsel to address any questions regarding these changes should they eventually become law.

For the second consecutive year, new legislation aimed at increasing state oversight and regulation for homeowners associations did not receive the necessary support to become ratified by the state legislature. A bill that would have granted the Department of Business and Professional Regulation the authority to investigate complaints against HOAs and provide educational programs for HOA board members failed miserably, as it did not even make it to its first committee hearing.

The proposed bill sought to level the playing field for state regulatory oversight for both condominium associations and HOAs. Currently, condominium associations are governed by laws that give the state power to review complaints, issue fines and conduct recalls after tainted elections, while HOAs are financially responsible for their own mediations to resolve similar disputes.

Opponents of the expanded state oversight for HOAs note that these communities, mostly comprised of single-family homes, share fewer common areas than condominium communities. They believe the process that is now in place for HOAs serves to curtail frivolous complaints since homeowners are typically held economically responsible for their own legal costs. If all complaints are able to go before the state agency, the HOAs would be required to pay increased legal fees for the additional representation.

Flalegislature.jpgProponents of the bill believe the additional requirements for board member education, which would have been paid for by a new $2 annual fee per home, and the increased level of state oversight and regulatory enforcement would help diminish questionable practices by HOA boards that draw the ire of their members.

Our blog hosts up-to-date information on new legislation as well as important legal and administrative issues for condominium associations and HOAs. We encourage association directors and members, as well as property managers, to submit their email address in the subscription box at the top right of the blog in order to automatically receive all of our future articles.