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Articles Posted in Community Association Law

The recent tragedy in Surfside, Fla., has significantly impacted our firm and the communities we serve. Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers remain with the victims and families affected by the Champlain Towers South collapse.

In the aftermath of this horrific catastrophe, many condominium association directors, members and managers have raised various questions concerning the safety and stability of their own buildings. Our firm’s other South Florida community association attorneys and I have been responding to many of these inquiries regarding the process of assessing building structural and mechanical elements, and undergoing any repairs and restorations as needed.

constdefect1Because buildings age and mature differently, with possible conditions developing at different points of a building’s lifespan, associations must assess the structural integrity of their buildings and keep up with proper maintenance protocols, even in advance of the triggering of the 40/50-year recertification process. By doing so, associations can gather accurate snapshots of their buildings’ structural health, perform proactive repairs, and organize the funding necessary to move forward with large projects.

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Several bills that will impact community associations throughout the state were enacted into law this year. The following are summaries of community association-related bills that the Governor approved:

Senate Bill 72: Civil Liability for Damages Relating to COVID-19

Florida-legislature2-300x169The Florida Legislature made Covid-19 civil liability protections for businesses, healthcare providers, non-profits, and other organizations a major priority for the 2021 session, and on March 29th it became the year’s first bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. With the enactment of Senate Bill 72, creating Section 768.38, Florida Statutes, businesses are now afforded protection from civil liability claims stemming from the Covid-19 virus as long as the business made a good faith effort to substantially comply with government-issued health standards or guidance at the time the cause of action would have accrued.

Individuals seeking to file claims for coronavirus-related injuries or death against covered entities will need to provide an affidavit from a medical professional asserting that they contracted the virus at the corresponding property. The claims must also demonstrate “clear and convincing evidence” of “gross negligence” in order to establish its validity. In order to prevail, plaintiffs will also be required to demonstrate in court that a defendant did not make a good faith effort to comply with public health guidelines.

The law also sets a one-year statute of limitations for the filing of lawsuits from either the date of death, hospitalization or the Covid-19 diagnosis involved in the claim, whichever is latest. The new law applies to claims that accrued before the enactment of the law and within one year following the Governor’s March 29 signing, but it does not apply to lawsuits that have already been filed.

Senate Bill 630: Community Associations

Section 627.714, Fla. Stat., has been revised to provide that if a condominium association’s insurance policy does not provide rights for subrogation against the unit owners in the association, an insurance policy issued to an individual unit owner in the association may not provide rights of subrogation against the condominium association.

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In the hours, days and now weeks since the horrific tragedy of the Surfside condo collapse, the firm’s Gary Mars and Stuart Sobel have been among the most sought-after expert sources by local and national media.  They have conducted extensive interviews with NBC News, the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Daily Business Review, Law 360 and The Real Deal.  In addition, Gary and Stuart appeared live in wide-ranging interviews on The Florida Roundup and Sundial, the news and public affairs shows produced and aired by WLRN FM-91.3, the South Florida National Public Radio affiliate.

wlrn-300x113Both of these interviews covered a great deal of ground, and we encourage all those interested in learning more about the questions involving the legal ramifications of this tragedy and the liabilities of the insurer, builders, engineers and architects to listen to both.  Gary’s interview on The Florida Roundup aired on Friday, July 2, at 1 p.m., and it’s available to be heard in full by clicking hereGaryMars-200x300He discusses the implications for condominium association boards from the collapse as well as the reforms that may be in store.  He believes these should include federal relief, perhaps in the form of federally backed low interest loans for condominium associations in need of undergoing extensive repairs.

Stuart’s interview aired during the Sundial show at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 6.  He discusses the extremely high qualifications of the judge and engineer assigned to the case, and he also shares his insights into the projections for the investigation and the ultimate compensation for the victims and their families.  Stuart-Sobel-2013-200x300It is a wide-ranging discussion that also delves into the projected reforms that he foresees are likely to follow.  Stuart’s interview is available by clicking here.

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The collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium has been a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions, and the unspeakable grief and horror of its aftermath have been shared deeply by our law firm.

Our firm’s community association law attorneys have made helping condominium communities to contend with construction defects a particular focus of our work.  We believe reforms should be considered to require engineers to report certain serious conditions to local building departments wherever they find them.  This would take discretion out of equation and immediately involve building inspections, permits being issued and repairs being completed.  We also suggest there should be new federal/state government aid and/or low-interest federally backed loans for condominium associations that now engage in major structural repairs.

Our attorneys are also concerned by the great deal of misinformation that is currently circulating over the legal liabilities of association board members.  We note that lawsuits against a condo association are ultimately against the building’s insurer and possibly all the unit owners, as the owners can be held responsible for their association’s liabilities.  The firm’s attorneys have been reaching out to our clients to remind them of importance of prioritizing engineering findings in their turnovers to new board members and property managers, and to focus on structural issues over aesthetics and fund reserve accounts for any necessary repairs.

Stuart-Sobel-2013-200x300Our firm’s attorneys have also been sharing their insights on these and other issues with major media outlets as well as some of Florida’s lawmakers and policymakers, and we have scheduled a free live webinar on 40-year recertifications and structural maintenance for today at 1 p.m. (click here for information and online registrations).  The Sun Sentinel and Daily Business Review immediately turned to our board certified construction and condominium law experts for their input in the aftermath of the collapse.  A front-page article in the Sun Sentinel that appeared in the Friday, June 25, edition titled “How to Know if Your Condo Tower is Safe” includes insights from firm partners Stuart Sobel (pictured here) and Roberto C. Blanch.  The article reads:

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The Community Associations Institute, the largest organization representing the interests of condominium and homeowners associations in the world, provides many excellent resources for association directors, members and property managers. One of the organization’s best online resources is its “Ungated” blog at www.blog.caionline.org, and two of its recent entries focused on some of the most important and ubiquitous Covid-related issues that are currently weighing on associations.

In the June 3 post, which is titled “Diving in: More community pools are open for the summer,” pandemic-related pool rules and operations are discussed. The post is based upon a survey of roughly 1,000 members of the Community Associations Institute regarding their pool plans for 2021, and it revealed that only two percent of survey respondents plan to close their pools this summer season. This survey result is in stark contrast to the nearly 44 percent of CAI members who planned to close their pools during the summer season last year.

CAI-logoIt is worth noting, however, that more than a quarter of respondents in the CAI survey were still undecided about their pool rules and policies for the remainder of the year due to ongoing coronavirus concerns. Additionally, forty percent of survey respondents confirmed they were planning to require residents to sign a liability waiver when pools reopen.

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A lawsuit that was recently filed against the Promenade at Boca Pointe Condominium Association highlights the importance of properly adopting changes to an association’s governing documents and recording them in the local court registry where the association is located. If the allegations in the lawsuit hold up in court, the association for the Boca-area community could be forced to pay the plaintiff unit-owners’ lost rental income and legal bills.

According to the suit, the association is making up rules to prevent condo owners Gerardo and Ana Vizcaino from leasing their unit for a full year. The suit states that the association’s new rule, which it apparently adopted at an August 2020 board meeting after a simple vote of the board the directors, was never approved by the members by a formal vote.

Indeed, the suit alleges that the association president acknowledged in a notice to all of the unit owners that the board’s adoption of a rule restricting rentals to one tenant per 12-month period was invalid because it had not been approved by the unit owners via an amendment to the governing documents. The only restriction in the association’s recorded declaration pertaining to rentals states that owners are only restricted from renting units for terms of less than thirty days. No other restrictions are included in the recorded governing documents.

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Jason-Rodgers-Da-Cruz-002-200x300The efforts of firm shareholder Jason M. Rodgers-da Cruz, together with Patrick S. Montoya of the Coral Gables-based law firm of Colson Hicks Eidson, were the subject of a front-page article headlined “This Miami Case Was Too Big For the Courtroom: Organizing Convention Center Trial ‘Like Setting Up a Show’” in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  The article discusses how it was going to be impossible for all of the jurors, defendants and their legal counsel to safely hold a trial at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse under Covid restrictions for a lawsuit by firm client Latitude on the River Condominium Association against eight defendants over the property’s allegedly faulty fire-sprinkler system.  Even though the case was ultimately settled confidentially before proceeding to trial, the duo’s plans to hold the proceedings in the James L. Knight Convention Center are now serving as a blueprint for remote courtroom proceedings for large multi-party cases with adequate social distancing precautions.  The article reads:

. . . The case, which took more than five years of litigation and multiple hearings, involved a class-action lawsuit brought by Latitude On The River Condominium Association Inc. against eight defendants over an alleged faulty fire sprinkler system with incompatible components.

dbr-logo-300x57Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey allowed plaintiffs attorneys Jason M. Rodgers-da Cruz of Siegfried Rivera and Patrick S. Montoya of Colson Hicks Eidson to work with her staff to plan for the massive jury trial. Jury selection was scheduled to start at the end of April.

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berenice-m-mottin-berger-2021-300x300LTLehr-2018-Siegfried-Rivera-200x300An article authored by the firm’s Lindsey Thurswell Lehr and Berenice Mottin-Berger appeared today as the featured expert commentary column in the online edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper, and will soon be appearing in the “Board of Contributors” page of the print edition.  The article, which is titled “Buyers at New S. Fla. Communities Must Diligently Protect Interests During, Post-Turnover,” begins by acknowledging that the South Florida housing market is now booming, thanks in large part to an influx of professionals relocating here and increased work-from-home opportunities under the new post-pandemic normal.  The attorneys note that many of the region’s new residential developments now rushing to completion will soon undergo the turnover process by which control of their operation and management is transferred from developers to property owners.  They write that this is a crucial stage with significant consequences for the long-term financial and administrative well-being of communities, making it essential for property owners to closely monitor the turnover process to protect their rights and investments.  Lindsey and Berenice’s article reads:

. . . Generally speaking, the turnover process presents the initial opportunity for new owners and owner-controlled boards of directors to hire independent legal counsel, financial professionals, and engineers to conduct meticulous inspections of a community’s property as well as its rules and business records. Communities at this stage will need to diligently interview and investigate prospective service providers to ensure only independent and highly qualified professionals are retained to represent the interests of all owners and hold developers to their warranty obligations.

dbr-logo-300x57As owner-controlled communities have different goals and needs than those still operating under the regime of their developer, the drafting of new rules regulating community affairs, collections policies and construction matters should be considered.

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This year’s legislative session proved to be a busy one, with a number of bills passed by the Florida Legislature that will impact community associations throughout the state. We recently covered the passing of Senate Bill 72 in our blog, also known as the Civil Liability for Damages Relating to COVID-19, which you can access by clicking here. The following are summaries of additional bills that have passed the Legislature and are pending action by the Governor:

Senate Bill 630: Community Associations

Senate Bill 630 represents sweeping changes for Florida communities. These changes include allowing condominium associations to use the demand for pre-suit mediation process; increases the amount that can be charged for a transfer fee from $100 to $150; addresses insurance subrogation by clarifying that if a condominium insurance policy does not provide rights for subrogation against the unit owners in the association, an insurance policy issued to an individual unit owner in the association may not provide rights of subrogation against the association; and clarifies that associations’ emergency powers extend to health emergencies and includes holding virtual meetings and implementing plans based on advice from health officials. The legislation also prohibits associations from requiring certain actions relating to the inspection of records; revises requirements relating to the posting of digital copies of certain documents by certain condominium associations; authorizes condominium associations and cooperatives to extinguish discriminatory restrictions; revises the calculation used in determining a board member’s term limit; and deletes a prohibition against employing or contracting with certain service providers. The bill also makes important limitations to homeowners’ association rental restrictions adopted after July 1, 2021 and provides that any governing document or amendment to a governing document enacted after July 1, 2021, in connection with certain rental restrictions will apply only to parcel owners who acquire the property after the effective date of the governing document or amendment, or to parcel owners who consent to the governing documents or amendment. The bill also brought changes to condominium association websites, allowing them to make their official records available on mobile apps and now allowing both condominiums and homeowners associations to adopt rules for posting notices on websites and mobile apps, provided that electronic notices are still emailed to members who have consented to receive electronic notices. The bill also requires that notices of intent to record a claim of lien specify certain dates. It authorizes parties to initiate pre-suit mediation under certain circumstances; specifies the circumstances under which arbitration is binding; revises requirements for certain fines; revises provisions relating to a quorum and voting rights for board members remotely participating in meetings; revises the procedure to challenge a board member recall; revises the documents that constitute the official records of an association; revises the types of records that are not accessible to members or parcel owners; revises the circumstances under which an association is deemed to have provided for reserve accounts; and authorizes certain developers to include reserves in the budget. This act shall take effect July 1, 2021.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has expanded the parameters and elevated the importance of disaster preparedness in community associations. Prior to the start of the 2021 hurricane season, community association boards of directors and property managers should reassess their disaster preparedness plans to ensure they are ready for anything and everything.

Some of the elements of a comprehensive disaster preparedness plan include detailed site plans, especially for large communities, a communications plan with all current contact information for board members and key staff/vendors, and an evacuation plan with information on public shelters as well as local gas stations and grocery stores with backup generators. Insurance information is also a must, and it should always include copies of all policies and information on claim-filing protocols.

strm-300x240The uncertainty caused by the pandemic also spotlighted the importance of unit-owner communications. Comprehensive disaster preparedness plans should include all current contact information and any other preparations necessary for outreach to residents via calls, text, email, and hand-delivered notices to all dwellings.

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