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Articles Posted in Condominium Association Law

Five months after the tragic collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla., several major organizations have developed a number of high-rise condo safety reforms and recommendations. However, most Florida counties and municipalities appear to be holding off in expectation of statewide changes to legislation during the next legislative session that starts in January.

The Community Associations Institute, which is the largest organization representing the interests of associations in the world, has issued a report with a number of public policy recommendations aimed at providing solutions for legislators addressing high-rise building safety. In addition, seven of Florida’s top architecture and engineering trade groups created a task force that has recommended re-inspections after 30 years with follow-ups every 10 years, and The Florida Bar has also completed the report and recommendations from its Condominium Law Life Safety Task Force.

CAI’s public policy recommendations cover the areas of reserve studies and funding, building maintenance, and structural integrity. The organization believes its recommendations should be considered for adoption into state law to support the existing statutory framework for the development, governance, and management of community associations. It is planning to release model statutory language in support of its policy recommendations.

In addition, federal mortgage lender Fannie Mae has released new project requirements for condominiums and housing cooperatives that will begin Jan. 1 for loans secured by units in high-rise buildings containing five or more attached units. The requirements place a heavy focus on structural and financial stability, and reinforces the importance of meticulous documentation of all appraisals, meeting minutes, financial statements, engineering reports, inspection reports, and reserve studies.

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Nicole-Kurtz-2014-200x300Michael-Hyman-srhl-lawAn article authored by the firm’s Michael L. Hyman and Nicole R. Kurtz was featured as the expert guest commentary column in the online edition of today’s 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 “DOJ Discrimination Suit Over Shoes Left Outside Holds Lessons for Community Associations,” focuses on a decision by a Florida condominium association and its board of directors to refuse to grant an accommodation to allow an owner to leave his shoes outside the front door of his unit in a condominium building with outdoor walkways.  As a result, the association now faces a costly and potentially dire federal discrimination lawsuit brought against it by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging it committed various violations of the Fair Housing Act.  Furthermore, the entire matter has also been chronicled online in an extensive news report by The Daily Beast.  Their article reads:

. . . The website’s article begins by noting that Charlie Burge, the unit owner who sought an accommodation that would allow him to maintain his shoes outside his unit’s front door, is a 9/11 responder who suffers from medical ailments stemming from his front-line work at the World Trade Center site. Before moving to Florida, he had worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation for 35 years, and he spent more than 400 days clearing debris at ground zero. As a result of this work, the article states that Burge suffers from upper respiratory issues, gastrointestinal ailments, skin cancer and PTSD; all of which federal officials have certified as being related to cleanup work performed at the WTC site.

dbr-logo-300x57After he retired in 2015, Burge and his wife Anna moved to a residence they owned at the Links South at Harbour Village, a condominium community on the Ponce Inlet south of Daytona Beach, Florida. In order to avoid aggravating his symptoms, and on the advice of his doctor, the couple began leaving their shoes outside of their front door. As their door is set back by several feet from the outdoor open-air walkway of their building, they were able to keep their shoes in a spot where they would not block anyone’s path.

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My colleague Laura Manning-Hudson wrote about a dispute involving pet chickens that received unwanted TV news coverage for a Boca Raton HOA in her last blog post.  To help illustrate just how common such negative media coverage has become for community associations that make questionable decisions, my latest post just a couple of weeks later also focuses on another report by a local South Florida station involving disputed community association actions.

The latest story is on a Hollywood, Fla., condominium association’s decision to deny a 100-year-old resident a gate access pass decal for her to use when she is getting a ride home. The report by 7 News (WSVN-FOX) in South Florida features an interview with Vangie Commeau, who lives at the Carriage Hills Condominium and is 100 years old. She tells the station’s Patrick Fraser that earlier this year the property cancelled the manned security guard at its entrance gate in favor of an automatic scanner that reads bar codes on window-sticker decals on residents’ vehicles to open the gate.

wsvn-logoBecause Commeau does not own or drive a vehicle, she did not receive a decal from the association. She tells the reporter that she brought it to their attention, but the association responded by declining to issue her a gate access decal pass.

This creates a burden for Commeau when one of her friends takes her to the doctor or to one of her monthly lunches with their friends, as she is unable to get their vehicle in through the residents’ gate when they return. She was told to use the guest lane and buzz one of her neighbors to let her in, but she notes that forces her to make an appointment with a neighbor a day ahead.

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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 was featured as the guest commentary column in the online edition of today’s Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper, and will soon appear in the print edition.  The article, which is titled “Funding Community Association Repairs and Renovations,” concentrates on how the funding of long-term condominium maintenance, repair and replacement projects has become a major focus at many communities across the country after the horrific tragedy of the collapse in Surfside, Fla.  It notes that many association board members who previously might have avoided increasing monthly assessments and implementing large special assessments are now looking to evaluate and address the inevitable deterioration of their buildings.  Lindsey and Berenice’s article reads:

. . . Rather than kicking the can down the road in hopes that future boards will address worsening maintenance concerns, association directors are coming to terms with the fact that delayed repairs and maintenance are likely to exacerbate structural problems and increase the eventual costs, in addition obviously to the potential life-safety risks, to be borne by the owners. dbr-logo-300x57As never before, association boards and unit owners have become keenly aware of the importance of maintaining adequate financial reserves to fund future construction projects.

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Eduardo-Valdes-srhl-lawAn article authored by firm partner Eduardo J. Valdes is featured in the op-ed “Opinions” page of today’s South Florida Sun Sentinel.  The article, which is titled “Post-Surfside, condo associations must be proactive with change | Opinion,” focuses on the impact that the horrific tragedy of the Champlain Towers South collapse has had on the condominium associations for similar towers nationwide and their boards of directors.  Eduardo notes that in addition to the shared grief and remorse with the families and friends of all the victims, many condo owners across the country are now raising questions about their own buildings’ structural safety and financial health, and some have also begun to feel more concerned about the funding of reserve accounts for major repairs and replacement projects.  His article reads:

 . . . All buildings deteriorate over time, so associations should always set aside funding on an ongoing basis to mitigate and remediate any structural elements that require attention.

As they begin reassessing their associations’ commitments, condominium boards of directors will generally try to avoid special assessments demanding additional funds from all the unit owners. They will need to consult with legal, financial, engineering and insurance professionals to strike a balance between the funding of reserves and the use of special assessments when they become necessary from a life-safety standpoint.

Sun_Sentinel_Logo-300x97Condominium association directors and unit-owner members would also be well advised to come to terms with the new reality that future buyers will now have many more questions and concerns than in the past about the financial health of the association and current state of the actual property from the ground up. Some will surely request that sellers provide them with the minutes from prior board meetings, information on any past or planned special assessments, the status of renovation and remediation projects, past changes to the monthly assessments over the years, the findings of past reserve studies, and the status of current reserve funding. They are also now more likely to conduct a thorough visual inspection of the entire property prior to making a written offer.

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Florida community associations typically have the right under their governing documents to regulate and approve leases and tenants. However, some association boards of directors are under the misconception that they can easily develop and implement new leasing restrictions via a board vote, and that they have the authority to approve or reject prospective tenants as they please without facing any scrutiny of their decisions.

As my colleague Laura Manning-Hudson wrote in this blog in her June 9 post titled “Suit Against Boca Condo Association Spotlights Importance of Governing Document Amendments, Filings,” a lawsuit filed earlier this year against Boca Pointe Condominium Association highlights the importance of properly adopting leasing restrictions to an association’s governing documents and recording them in the local court registry where the association is located.

Residential-lease-agreement-300x199According to the suit, the association’s new leasing restriction, which it apparently adopted via a simple vote of the board the directors, was never approved by all the unit-owner association members via a formal vote. The only leasing restriction in the association’s recorded declaration states that owners are only restricted from renting units for terms of less than thirty days, contradicting the new restriction that the board tried to implement. If the allegations in the lawsuit hold up in court, the association could be forced to pay the plaintiff unit-owners’ lost rental income and legal bills.

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Without a doubt, the tragic disaster of the collapse in Surfside, Fla., has impacted condominium association boards of directors across the country. In addition to board members’ grief for the 98 victims who lost their lives and their loved ones, many condominium directors have also grown concerned over the news of numerous lawsuits against the association for the Champlain Towers South. They are wondering whether the association’s directors or their estates may now face legal consequences and liabilities, and if perhaps the lawsuits are an indicator that they themselves are potentially taking on serious liabilities with their voluntary board service.

In response to the misconceptions that are now circulating amongst board members and those who may be considering serving on associations’ boards, they should be aware that there are several reasons why they should not be so concerned about potential legal liabilities. On the contrary, the collapse of the tower should serve as a call to action for unit owners to become more involved and take on the responsibilities of becoming a director.

meet-300x166Board members are shielded from liability under a community’s Directors and Officers insurance, which defends and protects them from lawsuits, in addition to the indemnification provisions of the articles of incorporation of their association and the Florida laws governing not-for-profit corporations.

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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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As we reported earlier this month, Senate Bill 56 was signed into law and will go into effect on July 1, 2021. The new law makes changes to the notice requirements of foreclosure actions for condominiums. Specifically, the changes require associations to send a notice to owners of unpaid assessments before an account is sent to a law firm for collections:

d) An association may not require payment of attorney fees related to a past due assessment without first delivering a written notice of late assessment to the parcel owner which specifies the amount owed the association and provides the parcel owner an opportunity to pay the amount owed without the assessment of attorney fees. The notice of late assessment must be sent by first-class United States mail to the owner at his or her last address as reflected in the association’s records and, if such address is not the parcel address, must also be sent by first-class United States mail to the parcel address. Notice is deemed to have been delivered upon mailing as required by this paragraph. A rebuttable presumption that an association mailed a notice in accordance with this paragraph is established if a board member, officer, or agent of the association, or a manager licensed under part VIII of chapter 468, provides a sworn affidavit attesting to such mailing. The notice must be in substantially the following form:

NOTICE OF LATE ASSESSMENT

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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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