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Each year, our elected state representatives and senators meet in Tallahassee for a legislative session where they review and debate an extensive amount of proposed bills, only to send a few of those bills to the governor to be signed into law.  For the third year in a row, our elected lawmakers will be discussing a bill that has once again resurfaced, and if passed, may have a significant impact on community associations’ wallets.

House Bill 483 — also known as Senate Bill 398 or “the home tax” bill — proposes to place a considerable amount of requirements relating to the issuance of estoppel certificates on the condominium, cooperative or homeowners association responsible for preparing them. If signed into law, community associations will need to be both financially and operationally prepared to abide by the stringent changes set forth in the bill.

An estoppel is a legally binding document prepared by a community association or its agent that discloses any liens, overdue assessments or any other money owed to the association, such as late fees and attorney’s fees.  Estoppels are required by title companies in standard real estate transactions in order to inform the seller and buyer of any outstanding financial obligation(s) on the unit or parcel.  If prepared incorrectly, the community association could be liable for miscalculated or incomplete balances, resulting in a loss for the association.

Contrary to some people’s beliefs, estoppels aren’t generated by the push of a button. They take time and precision to prepare, which is why a bill that shifts even more of the burden on the association could be detrimental.

Florida-legislature2-300x169One of the main components of this proposed bill is to mandate more rigorous deadlines for the preparation of estoppels.  Currently, associations have 15 days to prepare and deliver an estoppel once it is requested.  The bill would shorten this period to 10 business-days, which could be difficult for associations of varying sizes and levels of sophistication, as some will be anchored by antiquated bookkeeping or a lack of resources.

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When the Condominium Act was amended several years ago to allow associations to demand and collect rent directly from the tenants of unit owners who were delinquent in the payment of their monthly fees, community associations thought it was an answer to their prayers.  Associations were struggling to recover from the foreclosure crisis, and many homeowners made the decision to rent their units to make some money but, unfortunately, they also chose not to pay their associations.

However, utilization of this amendment has proven to be difficult and sometimes costly to enforce in cases in which de facto tenants and their landlords are able to demonstrate to the court that a tenancy under the letter of the law is not actually in place.  How many times have we heard that the tenant is “family,” that the tenant does not pay the landlord, and that there’s no lease in place?

A noteworthy example is found in a ruling last year by the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Appellate Division in the case of Cecil Tavares v. Villa Doral Master Associationvdoral-300x226 Tavares had conveyed his condominium unit via quit claim deed to a new owner, but he and his wife continued to live there.  When the new owner went into arrears with the association, it attempted to collect the rent directly from Tavares and eventually filed for an eviction.

The county court granted default judgment in favor of the association and issued a writ of possession to enable it to move forward with the eviction, but Tavares appealed on the question of whether the court erred by defining him as a tenant based on the quit claim deed.

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MTobacksrhl-law2-thumb-120x179-96777The firm’s Michael Toback authored an article that appeared as a “Board of Contributors” guest column in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  The article, which was titled “Rulings Clarify Application of Safe Harbor Caps on Association Dues,” focused on a couple of recent Florida appellate court rulings that brought additional clarity to the application of the criteria for foreclosing lenders and servicers to qualify for the caps that limit their liabilities for association dues.  Michael’s article reads:

In Brittany’s Place Condominium Association v. U.S. Bank, the Second District Court of Appeal settled some lingering questions as to whether a lender or servicer that takes title to a residence via a mortgage foreclosure must also be the current owner of the first mortgage when the final judgment of foreclosure is issued.

The case stems from a 2009 mortgage foreclosure action filed by U.S. Bank against the unit owner and all interested parties, including the association. The bank alleged that it was both the holder and servicer of the note and mortgage, acting on behalf of and with the authority of the owner. It was in possession of the note endorsed in blank, but the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., better known as Freddie Mac, owned the note and mortgage.

After securing a final judgment of foreclosure and acquiring title to the property via the foreclosure sale, U.S. Bank requested an estoppel letter from the association to determine the amount of past-due assessments. The parties could not agree on the extent of the lender’s liability, and the association eventually filed a lien foreclosure complaint against the lender, which then filed a counterclaim to seek compliance with the safe harbor caps.

dbr-logo-300x57The trial court found that there were no genuine issues of material fact and U.S. Bank met the statutory requirements entitling it to the limited liability provisions provided by the safe harbor caps, so the court granted the bank’s motion for summary judgment.

In the subsequent appeal, the association contended that U.S. Bank did not satisfy the safe harbor statute, which requires the entity acquiring title to have also been the first mortgagee or its successor or assignee. The association interpreted “first mortgagee or its successor or assignees” as necessitating ownership of the loan.

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In 2010, at the height of the recent foreclosure crisis, community associations in Florida gained an effective tool to aid them in their efforts to collect upon delinquent assessments.  It was at that time that the legislature amended Florida law to authorize community associations to suspend the rights of unit owners and their tenants to use portions of the community’s common elements and amenities if the owner became delinquent by more than 90 days in their obligation to pay association monetary obligations, including assessments.  Currently, the law also extends the association’s right to suspend such use rights in the event that the owner or their tenants should fail to comply with the association’s governing documents or rules.

Prior to then, associations had few practical remedies at their disposal to address violations of rules.  For instance, associations had the options of filing costly and lengthy lawsuits or arbitration actions, or imposing nominal fines.  As for collection of delinquent assessments, associations’ options were limited to placing liens on the homes or units owned by delinquent owners – a remedy with limited effectiveness during the foreclosure crisis due to the statutory safe harbor protections benefiting lenders in Florida.

tenrightHowever, since its implementation, some associations have found that suspending owner and tenants’ rights to use common elements or facilities may be an effective measure for contending with delinquencies as well as violations of rules and other restrictions.

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MTobacksrhl-law2-thumb-120x179-96777The firm’s Michael Toback authored an article that appeared as a “Board of Contributors” guest column in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  The article, which was titled “Ruling Quashes Lingering Questions on Partial Payments to Condo Associations,” discusses the implications of a recent ruling that brings clarity for condominium associations in their handling of partial payments from delinquent unit owners.  His article reads:

Two years ago a ruling by the state’s Second District Court of Appeal created a major wrinkle in the acceptance of partial payments by condominium associations when the payments had been endorsed and presented as full and complete remittances of the total outstanding debt owed by unit owners.

The court’s ruling in the case of St. Croix Lane Trust v. St. Croix at Pelican Marsh Condominium Association essentially made it necessary for associations to consult with legal counsel when they received checks for partial payments that were in any way endorsed as representing the full and final payment of assessments owed by an owner. Prior to this ruling, associations were guided by a 2008 ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal which held that associations cannot refuse partial payments of assessments made by or on behalf of owners.

In St. Croix, the unit owner’s attorney specifically wrote to the association attorney stating that the payment made by the owner in the amount of $840 was to be considered as the full and complete payment for the settlement of the account, which the association claimed was delinquent in excess of $38,000. dbr logo-thumb-400x76-51605 While the Naples association responded to the owner’s attorney by denying that the partial payment was the full and final payment of the amount owed, it accepted and deposited the check, applying the funds as a partial payment in accordance with Florida law.

The appellate court found that the association’s depositing of the check containing the restrictive endorsement operated as an “accord and satisfaction,” resulting in a waiver of the association’s right to collect the remaining debt owed by the unit owner.

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The firm’s Michael L. Hyman authored an article that appeared as a “My View” guest column in today’s Business Monday section of the Miami Herald.  Michael’s article shed light on the new estoppel bill that is being considered by the Florida Legislature and how it would lead to increased fees for most associations.  His article reads:

“. . . with the backing of the powerful real estate industry and title companies, a new version of the bill now seeks to take the burden of paying for the preparation of estoppels away from some of their clients and place it on the existing homeowners in the communities where their clients wish to buy.

House Bill 203, this year’s version of the measure, has already passed the House’s Civil Justice Committee, and it is on track for a vote during the 2016 legislative session that began on Jan. 12. It calls for changes to allow estoppel certificates to be delivered electronically and require them to include specific content as well as effective periods. The amount that associations can charge home buyers for the certificates would be capped at $500, and the certificates would be required to be prepared and delivered within 10 business days of a request.

None of these changes are the one that presents the most concerns for associations, although the requirement for a 10 business-day turnaround will prove difficult in complex cases that may include fines in addition to delinquent maintenance dues and/or litigation. Bear in mind that the size and sophistication of community associations varies greatly, and small associations with antiquated bookkeeping will find these difficult cases to be particularly daunting. In addition, any differences between the capped amounts that home buyers can be charged for the preparation of an estoppel and the actual cost of creating it would be passed on to all of the unit owners of an association.”

Michael’s article concludes:

“. . . the most troubling aspect of the bill for associations is that they and their unit owners would be on hook for these fees in many cases when sales fail to close. The bill calls for associations to wait for a sale of a unit to close until they get paid for the work and fees that they incurred in preparing an estoppel to facilitate the sale. If the home or condominium sale did not close, the association would ultimately be responsible for these fees and costs if it were unable to collect them from the seller of the unit, as would often be the case with so many distressed properties being sold by owners already delinquent on their association dues.

This aspect of the bill is sure to have a deleterious financial impact on many condominium associations and HOAs throughout the state. Real estate sales fail to close all of the time due to failed inspections, and the associated costs for conducting these home inspections are always rightfully borne by the prospective buyers. Estoppel certificate fees, which are typically less than $400, are actually among the smallest expenses of all of the closing costs and fees incurred in connection with real estate transactions.

Community associations in Florida have had to overcome dire financial strains in order to recover from the collapse of the housing market and the foreclosure crisis. HB 203 seeks to shift estoppel fees to the associations and their unit owners, and take them away from those who enter into contracts for the purchase of a property and then fail to close. Association directors and members as well as property managers should contact the Florida lawmakers for their district to voice their opposition.”

Our firm congratulates Michael for sharing his insights with the readers of the Miami Herald on the potential negative impact of this legislation on community associations in Florida.  Click here to read the complete article in the newspaper’s website.

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Foreclosures by community associations against their delinquent unit owners were virtually unheard of 10 years ago, as lenders would almost always move quickly with their own foreclosures against these owners, and their first-mortgage liens are superior to those of associations. Today, the practice has become the prudent approach for cases involving lenders that try to place their mortgage foreclosures into a holding pattern while they wait for the housing market to make a complete recovery.

Many community association attorneys now counsel their clients to complete their own foreclosure actions in certain cases in advance of the banks in order to acquire and rent the residences before the lenders’ foreclosures are finalized. With so many lenders taking years to complete their foreclosures, the revenues from these rentals have helped to relieve a great deal of the financial strains that some associations have faced.

Last year, the state legislature added some clarity to the law governing the liabilities of foreclosing lenders to associations for the prior owners’ association debts. The banks had argued in a number of cases that associations which foreclose in advance of mortgage lenders have effectively put themselves in the position of the prior owner, which is not entitled to collect any past-due fees. An amendment to the law fixed this loophole, and now lenders are still held liable for the safe-harbor liability caps to associations that have completed their own foreclosure in advance.

As such, the question for associations facing lender foreclosure cases that appear to be dragging on is when they should pull the trigger and foreclose their outstanding lien held on the property for unpaid past-due assessments. The answer requires qualified legal counsel to carefully review the case file along with the property appraiser website, tax collector website, court dockets and official records. Considerations that always have to be taken into account include the amount that is owed under the first mortgage, if there is also a second mortgage on the property, the exact status of the mortgage foreclosure case, and the status of the tax records on the property.

MT2.jpgIn addition to these universal considerations, some cases may also include issues involving the deterioration of the unit itself. Associations will need to carefully consider their options involving residences that will require major renovations in order to prepare them for rental. This is very important, as associations cannot rely on third parties to purchase these properties via the foreclosure sales but rather they must prepare to take title to the units.

Another important aspect of these prolonged foreclosure cases is that they can set the tone for associations that wish to take a firm and uniform stance on their collections and payment-enforcement efforts. Sending a demand letter and recording a claim of lien but going no further, even when a foreclosure that should take only a few months to complete begins to approach the one-year mark, is probably not the ideal precedent for associations to set.

While the banks are beginning to move their mortgage foreclosures a bit quicker, oftentimes they are still moving far too slowly for associations which are being burdened by the property’s outstanding unpaid assessments. Together with qualified legal counsel, associations should carefully weigh all of the above-mentioned matters and considerations to determine whether to move forward with their own foreclosure actions in advance of lenders or to wait to enforce their liens.

Questions regarding compliance with the federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act for the collection of community association assessments by property management companies have been a source of confusion in the industry for decades. Since the ruling in Harris v. Liberty Community Management, Inc., property management companies that fall within the exemption found in §1692a(6)(F)(i) of the FDCPA are not subject to the restrictions imposed by the Act.

The Act provides an exemption for persons or entities “collecting or attempting to collect any debt owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another to the extent such activity is incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation.” Liberty Community Management, as the property management company for Little Suwanee Point Community, was hired to provide management services for the association, which included the right to contract for the regular maintenance, repair and operation of common areas and facilities of the association, contract for utility services, purchase insurance policies, and negotiate the collection of assessments from delinquent homeowners.

Liberty, as the association’s agent pursuant to the management agreement, was also authorized to request, demand, collect, receive and invoice for all charges and assessments due to the association. Homeowners residing at Little Suwanee Point Community brought an action against Liberty claiming it was a debt collector which had engaged in unfair business practices when it sent late letters to homeowners who were delinquent in the payment of assessments.

After reviewing the facts presented and the exemptions set forth in the Act, the Eleventh Circuit held that Liberty was exempt from the requirements of the Act since the collection of past due assessments was incidental to its obligations to the association. Had the collection of assessments been central to Liberty’s fiduciary obligations to the association, it would be considered a debt collector as defined by the Act, subject to the requirements imposed therein.

Whether a property management company meets the requirements of the exemption is a question of fact for each individual case. If the collection of assessments is central to an association’s contract with its property management company, the company’s actions to collect the debt will fall within the meaning of term “debt collector” as defined by the Act, making it subject to the requirements imposed therein.

Our attorneys write about important legal and business matters for community associations in this blog on a regular basis, and we encourage association directors, members and 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.

LauraManningHudson.jpgFirm partner Laura M. Manning-Hudson 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 spate of decisions by the Second, Fourth and Fifth District Courts of Appeal with regard to whether the court in a mortgage foreclosure action retains jurisdiction to determine the amount of unpaid condominium and homeowners association assessments that a foreclosing lender must pay. Her article reads:

In July, the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued an opinion in Central Park A Metrowest Condominium Assoc., Inc. v. Amtrust REO I finding that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to decide a post-judgment issue – namely the amount of assessments owed by the foreclosing lender for the prior owner’s past-due condominium assessments. The lender’s complaint had averred that the condominium association “may claim some interest in or lien upon the subject property by virtue of [a] Claim of Lien.” The association answered the complaint and asserted a counterclaim for unpaid assessments. The appellate court, however, found that despite litigating the issue of past-due assessments in a counterclaim, the trial court did not have jurisdiction to determine the issue post-judgment where the final judgment merely provided that “[j]urisdiction of this action is retained to enter further orders as are proper including, without limitation, a deficiency judgment.”

For the Fifth DCA, the issue was not whether the assessments had been litigated in the underlying action, but whether the court had specifically retained jurisdiction in its final judgment to determine their amount.

However, in the two most recent opinions issued by the Second and Fourth District Courts of Appeal, the standards vary. But, there’s a lesson here.

In Citation Way Condominium Association v. Wells Fargo Bank and Leslie Linder, the Fourth DCA found that the lower court had retained jurisdiction to determine the post-judgment issue of past-due condominium assessments where “[t]he issue of unpaid assessments was raised in the underlying foreclosure action and the third-party purchaser, Fannie Mae, had a direct relationship with the plaintiff, Wells Fargo.”

Wells Fargo, as the servicing agent for Fannie Mae, had alleged in its complaint that “its lien was superior to any other claims against title and interest except for unpaid condominium assessments as provided in section 718.116, Florida Statutes.” Unfortunately, the opinion does not reference the language in the final judgment, but apparently it was sufficient basis for the appellate court to decide that the issue had been raised in the underlying action and therefore the lower court could retain jurisdiction.

However, in Grand Central at Kennedy Condominium Association v. Space Coast Credit Union, the Second DCA, citing the Central Park opinion, agreed with the association, concluding: “The trial court lacked jurisdiction because entitlement to assessments was neither litigated nor adjudicated and the trial court did not specifically reserve jurisdiction to determine the amount of assessments due pursuant to section 718.116(1)(b).” The underlying final judgment did not address the condominium’s assessments but merely “contained only a general reservation of jurisdiction.” Apparently, condominium assessments (pre- or post-judgment) were never considered in this case.

Laura’s article concludes:

As shown by these three rulings, the standard in each of the Second, Fourth and Fifth Districts varies as it pertains to post-judgment jurisdiction. While for some courts the issue depends on whether the assessments were litigated at the trial level (albeit, the extent of that litigation was not exemplified), for each of the courts the specific reservation of jurisdiction was key. In fact, the message could not be any clearer than it is in a footnote in the Second DCA’s opinion:

“This appears to be a prevalent issue in mortgage foreclosure actions to which homeowner or condominium associations are parties. In such cases, we would encourage the circuit courts to consider including in their final judgments specific language concerning the reservation of jurisdiction to address the issues of entitlement to and the amount of any unpaid assessments.”

Because attorneys typically submit proposed final judgments to the trial courts for consideration, these three opinions should serve as an instruction to practitioners to include specific language in their final judgments reserving jurisdiction to address the issue of unpaid assessments. Additionally, in order to ensure that the issue is “litigated” in the underlying case, association counsel should be similarly instructed to raise the issue of assessments (pre- and post-judgment) in their affirmative defenses to lender foreclosure cases.

For both the lenders and associations involved in foreclosure cases, it is almost always preferable that assessments be determined by the trial court as part of the foreclosure proceedings rather than via a separate action, thus saving the client both legal and court costs.

Our firm congratulates Laura for sharing her insight into these important new appellate decisions with the readers of the Daily Business Review.

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LauraManningHudson.jpgFirm partner Laura M. Manning-Hudson 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 Fifth District Court of Appeal in the case of Central Park A Metrowest Condominium Association v. Amtrust REO I. Her article reads:

As part of the condominium association’s apparent strategy to aggressively pursue its collections for the previous owners’ debts, the association issued an estoppel to Amtrust REO demanding the full amount of past-due assessments totaling more than $30,000.

In turn, Amtrust REO responded by demanding that the association apply the safe-harbor liability limits set forth in the state Condominium Act, and it also filed a motion to determine amounts due in the foreclosure action seeking to have the same judge who had entered the final judgment determine the amount that it now owed to the association. The foreclosure court considered the motion and ruled that the agent was entitled to the statutory safe-harbor limits, and the association appealed.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed with the association’s position that the trial court’s order must be reversed because it lacked jurisdiction to decide a post-judgment issue that was not a part of the lender’s foreclosure case, to wit the amount which the agent owed to the condominium association for past due assessments.

Laura’s article concludes:

However, while the association won on the technical issue regarding the post judgment jurisdiction of the trial court, it apparently lost the argument that an agent or servicer of a first mortgagee is not entitled to the safe-harbor protections afforded under the Condominium Act. Section 718.116(1)(b), F.S., provides that the liability of a first mortgagee “or its successor or assignees” which acquire title to a unit by foreclosure is limited to the lesser of 12 months of assessments or 1 percent of the original mortgage debt.

The Fifth District opinion also concluded: “Although the trial court appears to have correctly interpreted the substantive law at issue, the trial court lacked continuing jurisdiction to issue a ruling on that matter.”

Accordingly, while the trial court’s decision was quashed due to lack of jurisdiction, the opinion appears to have interpreted that an “agent” or “servicer” is the same as a “successor or assignee” and is therefore entitled to safe-harbor protection.

If the association now continues to demand the full amount of past-due assessments owed on the unit, the agent/servicer will be required to file a new action to determine its rights. If that is the case, the servicer could very likely seek — and be awarded — its attorney fees from the association.

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

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