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Articles Posted in Homeowners association law

A couple of years ago we saw the Florida state legislature add teeth to Florida’s condo and HOA laws governing theft, fraud, abuse and conflicts of interest. Recently, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the state agency that governs community associations, followed suit by implementing harsher civil disciplinary guidelines for condominium association infractions.

The new guidelines detail the civil penalties and disciplinary procedures for violations of the Condominium Act and the Florida Rules of Administrative Procedure involving accounting records, assessments, boards, budgets, common expenses, conflicts of interest, debit cards, elections, estoppel certificates, final orders, fiduciary duty, investigations, records requests, financial reporting, reserves, special assessments and websites.

dbprlogo-300x170For minor violations, the disciplinary guidelines call for the agency’s Division of Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes to issue the association with a written Notice of Noncompliance “due to the violation’s lower potential for public harm.” If the association fails to comply with the stipulations called for in the Notice, it could result in sanctions and enforcement with monetary penalties being imposed in amounts between $5 and $10 per unit for each violation. The maximum penalty for minor violations is $2,500, for a single minor violation.
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Nicole-Kurtz-2014-200x300An article authored by the firm’s Nicole R. Kurtz was featured as the guest commentary column in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  Her article, which is titled “Association Election ‘Shenanigans’ Lead to Contentious, Costly Litigation,” focuses on the takeaways for Florida community associations from the case involving the strange and suspicious circumstances surrounding an Orlando-area HOA’s last annual election.  It reads:

A case in which a trial court concluded may have involved some association election “shenanigans” is going back to the trial court for further proceedings after the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s order mandating binding arbitration.

“What should have been a rather routine meeting of the Association was cloaked with mystery, intrigue, and confusion,” begins the Fifth DCA’s unanimous opinion in the case of Winter Green at Winter Park HOA v. Richard Ware et al. Indeed, mystery, intrigue and confusion seem to be very apropos for describing the set of circumstances that unfolded during the Orlando suburb’s annual meeting and election.

It all began when somehow two nearly identical notices were sent out to announce the upcoming annual meeting and election to the homeowners. Both notices included the necessary agenda and accompanying documents, however the notice prepared by the association’s property manager set the annual meeting date for November 15, 2017, while the other notice announced the annual meeting was to be held on November 12, 2017.

dbr-logo-300x57Fifty-five members of the association attended the Nov. 12 meeting, which was sufficient to establish a quorum, but the owners were surprised to find that neither the property manager nor any of the current board members were present. An owner was even dispatched to the property manager’s office to seek clarification on the manager and directors’ absence, but he found no one there.

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Drones have become extremely popular for those who yearn for the latest gadgets and gizmos.  Many associations have already adopted rules to address the use of drones in their communities, and those that have not done so should give it serious thought and consideration.

When equipped with cameras, drones can be used to violate the privacy of association residents, not to mention their ability to cause major property damage, so associations should take a proactive approach toward developing and implementing rules and restrictions to protect the interests of those residing within their community.  Specifically, some examples of the rules and policies that associations are implementing include:

d2-300x176Restricting the space within which drones may be flown, such as over their operator’s personal lot, or those lots of adjoining neighbors (with their prior permission).

Limiting drone use to association common areas that are away from roads, buildings, playgrounds and other amenities.

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As the 2019 Florida legislative session gets underway, all indications are that this will be a very busy year for new legislation affecting the more than 48,000 community associations in the state. Here are some of the bills that my fellow community association attorneys at our firm and I will be monitoring very closely:

HB 153 – Requires landlord to provide physical copy of any restrictive covenants that govern premises to tenant at specified time; requires written notice be provided to tenant of any changes to covenants within specified time.

HB 155, known as the Community Recall Act – Amend Section 720.303, F.S. to require owners living in an HOA to physically reside in the community in order to vote to recall a member of the board of directors.

HB 565 – Removes housing discrimination as cause of action for relief & damages stemming from violations of Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992; revises timeframe & conditions under which aggrieved person may commence civil action to enforce specified rights; authorizes, rather than requires, civil action after alleged discriminatory housing practice; authorizes civil action regardless of whether aggrieved person filed complaint with commission; prohibits aggrieved person from filing specified action in certain circumstances; provides exception.

Florida-legislature2HB 647 – Requires certain associations to post certain signs or symbols on buildings; requires State Fire Marshal to adopt rules governing such signs & symbols; provides for enforcement; revises provisions relating to evidence of association compliance with fire & life safety code; revises provisions related to retrofitting.

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Reports of association theft, fraud and embezzlement are no surprise to the South Florida community association attorneys at our firm, but two similar reports on the same day from communities on both the east and west coasts of the country drew our attention.

The media reports of the incidents, which both ran on Thursday, Jan. 17th, are very similar. The one in the Nisqually Valley News newspaper in the state of Washington chronicles how the Clearwood Community Association filed a complaint alleging its former bookkeeper embezzled nearly $300,000. The suit against Dolanna K. Burnett, the former bookkeeper, and her husband claims that she wrote multiple checks to herself and covered it up in the accounting system dating back to 2014.

The newspaper article states Burnett had a previous conviction in 2014 for theft, identity theft and forgery. She used counterfeit refund checks totaling $17,000 while she was working for the Tacoma Health Department and deposited them into her personal account. This information was discovered last summer and taken to the Clearwood Board of Directors, which stood by its decision to retain her and continued to use her as its bookkeeper.

This led to an outcry by the unit owners, eventually prompting a majority of the board members and Burnett to resign from their posts.

By the end of the year, the board hired a forensic accountant and discovered evidence that the former employee had been stealing significant sums from the association’s general account for years. It turned the case over to the county sheriff’s office and filed a civil suit against Burnett.

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Laura-Manning-Hudson-Gort-photo-thumb-120x180-18921An article authored by partner Laura Manning-Hudson is featured as the “Board of Contributors” guest commentary column in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  The article, which is titled “Permitted Breach of Rules by Association Does Not Create Liability for Resulting Accident,” discusses the takeaways from a recent case involving a community association’s liability for an automobile accident involving parked vehicles on its streets.  Her article reads:

Lack of parking can be an extremely troublesome issue for many South Florida community associations. For HOAs with rules that prohibit on-street parking, the dearth of available spaces for residents and their guests can leave many homeowners feeling stymied and annoyed.

To remedy the angst of its residents, the HOA for the Seminole Lakes community in Palm Beach County decided to forgo its rule against on-street overnight parking. However, that decision nearly ended up causing the association major legal and financial liabilities, which it was only able to avoid after it appealed a jury’s verdict to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.

dbr-logo-300x57The case of Seminole Lakes Homeowner’s Association v. Esnard arose from a 2013 car accident in the community between the Esnards and another motorist, who rear-ended their vehicle while they were stopped waiting for two trucks to pass between two parked cars on the street. The Esnards, who were injured in the accident and had their car completely totaled, filed suit against the other driver as well as Seminole Lakes on the basis that the community was negligent and had proximately caused their damages by permitting homeowners and their guests to park on both sides of its streets — contrary to its governing documents.

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Not enough community association boards make effective use of committees.  Committees can be very useful when it comes to providing recommendations to the board and assisting the board with carrying out its duties and responsibilities.  However, many associations do not take the time to establish committees or set parameters for their work so that committees may assist in the operation of the association.

Setting up committees is the responsibility of an association’s board of directors. The board must appoint the members of each committee at a properly noticed board meeting, during which the directors should provide instructions and set parameters for the scope of the committees’ responsibilities.

One of the best approaches is for boards of directors to use their annual meetings to establish various committees, appoint committee members and establish areas of purview for each. Each committee should have at least three members.

meetWith the exception of the rules enforcement committee, board members may also serve as members on committees. Many associations choose to have a board member on each committee along with two non-director volunteers, as this enables the board member to keep their fellow directors abreast of the committee’s work and progress.

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MTobacksrhl-law2-200x300The firm’s Michael Toback authored an article that appeared as the featured “Board of Contributors” guest commentary column in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  The article, which is titled “Court Strikes Down HOA’s Rule Banning Personal Trainer From Fitness Center,” focuses on the takeaways from a recent appellate ruling involving association bans of guests from amenities and common areas.  The article reads:

Is a personal trainer in a fitness center like a call girl sitting at a clubhouse bar? This comparison was drawn by the trial court in its decision to grant summary judgment in favor of a homeowner’s association as to whether a personal trainer is an invitee or a licensee. However, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the decision, concluding that neither the analogy nor the analysis was properly applied to the facts of the case.

The Fourth DCA’s recent ruling in Charterhouse Associates v. Valencia Reserve Homeowners Association brings an added measure of clarity to the proper test for courts to apply when determining who may be classified as a licensee by associations.

dbr-logo-300x57The residents of a property owned by Charterhouse within the Boynton Beach, Florida community paid and authorized a personal trainer to lead their workouts in the community fitness center. The gym is one of the amenities available for use by owners, family members, guests, invitees and tenants according to Valencia Reserve’s declaration. When the association later entered into a contract with a different vendor to be the exclusive provider of personal training services in the fitness center, it banned the residents’ trainer from the facility.

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Nick-Siegfried-2013-thumb-120x180-61267jmilesThe firm’s Joseph A. Miles and Nicholas D. Siegfried were featured in an article in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper, about a major verdict that they recently secured for one of the firm’s clients.  The article, which is titled “South Florida Lawyers Win $4.1M for Cable Company Fired Over Service Delays,” focuses on their work in securing the verdict for an affiliate of Miami-based OpticalTel in a case involving the company’s wrongful termination by a Central Florida HOA.  The article reads:

Coral Gables lawyers Joseph A. Miles and Nicholas D. Siegfried landed a $4.1 million verdict for Miami-based company PC Services LLC, which claimed the Cascades of Groveland Homeowners’ Association Inc. in Lake County should never have terminated an agreement with the company because it wasn’t responsible for a flurry of delays and problems with services.

The 2012 lawsuit arose from years of bad blood between the parties over a deal that turned sour. On July 2007, the homeowner association terminated its contract with PC Services, claiming it had failed to properly do its job. But PC Services argued it had and lost the opportunity to make a profit on its $1.6 million investment.

The defense argued it was right to terminate the agreement because it didn’t get what PC Services promised.

dbrlogo-300x57Defense lawyers Aristides J. Diaz and Thomas R. Slaten Jr. of Larsen & Associates in Orlando did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.

Making the case was no small feat for the Siegfried Rivera lawyers, as it was laced with technical jargon that would likely stump the average juror.

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This is the time of year when many Florida condominium associations conduct their annual meeting and election of directors.  Here are some helpful reminders about the process to ensure that your community’s meeting and election avoid potential glitches and remain in compliance with Florida law.

Board membership should be viewed as being akin to a civic duty for condominium owners.  So long as individuals meet the basic legal requirements, to wit: they are current on all of their financial obligations to the association and are not a convicted felon, they are otherwise eligible to run for a board seat in most associations.

The election notices that are distributed by the association to all of the owners begin with the initial notice that must be sent out at least 60 days prior to the election. This notice should include information on the deadlines for submission of notices to the association for those who intend to run for a board seat. All candidates must provide their association with a written notice of their intent to run for the board of directors at least 40 days prior to the date of the election. meeting-vote-300x300Registered candidates are then able to lobby their fellow owners, and they may submit a resume to the association at least 35 days prior to the election. The resume, which may not exceed one side of a standard piece of office paper, should contain details about a candidate’s professional and educational background as well as any other attributes and qualifications that they would like to include.

A second notice of the election, which must be distributed between 34 and 14 days prior to the election, must include copies of all the resumes submitted by the candidates together with the ballot and the inner and outer envelopes.

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