In its recent opinion in the case of Aventura Management, LLC vs. Spiaggia Ocean Condominium Association, Inc., the Third District Court of Appeal may have significantly impacted the collection strategies implemented by many condominium and homeowner associations in Florida. The case involved a condominium association’s efforts to recover full payment of past-due assessments and related amounts against an entity that acquired title to a unit resulting from a lender’s foreclosure of the mortgage on such unit. At the time that the entity acquired title to the unit, the condominium association was the owner of the unit in question – having taken title to the unit as a result of being the prevailing bidder at the clerk’s sale following the foreclosure of the association’s lien on the unit.
In its attempts to recover payment from the new entity unit owner, the association argued that the condominium statutes in Florida provide that unit owners are jointly and severally liable with the previous owner for all unpaid assessments that came due up to the time of transfer of title to the unit. While the trial court apparently agreed with the association’s position, the appellate court disagreed, determining that the association was the “previous owner” as contemplated in the statutes and as such, the association was jointly and severally responsible for the assessments together with the person or entity that owned the unit prior to the association.
The appellate court was not persuaded by the association’s arguments that it was not responsible for the assessments and other amounts owed to the association. These arguments included claims that the applicable statutes were not intended to apply to associations acquiring title to units as a result of their own foreclosure cases, and that the new entity owner knew or should have known that it was responsible for the past-due assessments and other sums.
The appellate court is relevant given that the current legal and economic climate for community associations continues to be dominated by excessive mortgage foreclosure actions, which at times are dueling with community association efforts to collect on unpaid assessments owed by the owners of units subject to such mortgage foreclosure actions.
In light of the legislative protection for lenders foreclosing on their mortgages on units in community associations, prior to the inundation of court dockets with mortgage foreclosure cases, community associations were traditionally reluctant to aggressively pursue foreclosure actions on their own liens if the same unit was subject to a mortgage foreclosure action. However, the economic and real estate market crash coupled with the glut of mortgage foreclosure cases and the robo-signing fiasco dealt a crippling effect to the court system and the ability of community associations to collect upon delinquent owners. The board of directors of community associations and their management and legal counsel were forced to depart from the traditional philosophy of standing on the sidelines while bank foreclosure cases proceeded at speeds less than snail’s pace. As a result, community associations commenced aggressively pursuing their lien foreclosure cases notwithstanding the existence of lender foreclosure cases on the same property – in hopes that such efforts would aid in mitigating prolonged periods of weakened cash flow to the associations.
As a result of these strategies, many community associations foreclosed upon their liens, resulting in the acquisition of such foreclosed homes by third parties or more typically, the acquisition of such homes by the associations themselves – in both instances, subject to the foreclosing lenders’ mortgage liens. In cases where associations acquired title, some of these associations continued to pursue collection of past-due assessments from the eventual third-party purchaser who acquired title to the home at the conclusion of the lender’s foreclosure case – despite objections from such new third-party owners. However, in light of the ruling in the Aventura Management, LLC case, community associations will have to think twice before continuing with such aggressive strategies.
Accordingly, this decision underscores the importance for community association managers and directors to consult with qualified legal counsel regarding the pros and cons of pursuing various strategies related to the collection of delinquent association assessments.