Articles Posted in New Legislation

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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With the approval of Amendment 2 last November to legalize the use of medical marijuana in Florida, the state legislature and Department of Health are now developing the rules and regulations that will govern the use of cannabis by those who suffer from a number of ailments listed in the new constitutional amendment.  Likewise, now is also the time for associations to begin discussing and considering the implementation of their own rules and restrictions regarding the use of the drug by unit owners in their communities.

For most communities, the question of whether the use of medical marijuana should be allowed in the common areas will likely cause the most unease.  Other concerns include the use of cannabis inside of the residences, especially in condominiums where the odor could permeate into the common elements or other residences, and some properties may wish to ban the drug from the community in its entirety.

It remains unclear whether the state’s lawmakers will attempt to ban the smoking of medical marijuana.  If smoking marijuana is allowed under the laws that will be adopted in order to comply with the amendment, community associations will need to address whether they must make exceptions to their rules in order to allow residents with a doctor’s prescription to smoke medical marijuana.

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One of the more notable developments resulting from the 2015 Florida legislative session included a change to community association statutes establishing the opportunity for associations to offer their members the ability to vote electronically.  While many community association stakeholders have had an immediate reaction to jump on the  e-voting bandwagon, we have counseled — and will continue to counsel — our clients to proceed with caution, as with all new innovations presented during the digital age.

We have come to find that electronic voting may benefit some community associations, while it may not address the voting concerns of others.  In light of this, we will continue to encourage community association board members, managers and owners to seek competent legal advice regarding whether electronic voting is a good option for their association.  If the decision is reached to implement e-voting as an option, community association board members and managers should work with their lawyers to evaluate which online voting provider’s system is best suited to meet the needs of their association, while making sure the software complies with the Florida community association online voting requirements.

Additionally, it is advisable that associations use an electronic voting system provider that is independent from its law firm and management company, so as to ensure that the integrity of the association’s voting process is best protected.

VTRIn our efforts to vet online voting systems, we realized that most lacked the basis for proper application in basic community association settings or lacked the flexibility to adapt to unique voting situations.

After multiple months of research, we were successful in identifying a provider well suited for community association use.  VTR, an e-voting software system owned and operated by FOB Software, is one provider we feel community association directors and managers should consider.

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Community association attorneys are often asked about the lack of uniformity in the Florida laws and regulations for condominium associations and those for homeowners associations. There are many differences between the statutes governing condominium associations and those for HOAs, and condominiums are much more heavily regulated.

In fact, all condominium associations in the state must pay an annual fee to fund the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Condominiums, which serves to provide regulatory oversight over condominium association elections and disputes stemming from the actions of their members and boards of directors.

Homeowners associations have been excluded from the purview of this state agency since its inception, which, among other things, has created significant discrepancies in the laws governing these different types of community associations involving their elections, meetings, board recalls, vendor contracts, and other areas. However, a bill that was introduced by Rep. John Cortes of Osceola County seeks to change that and bring HOAs under the regulatory oversight of the state agency.

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HB 653 represents potentially sweeping changes for HOAs in Florida. It seeks to rename the state agency in order to add homeowners associations to its name; authorize the agency to investigate certain complaints involving HOAs, conduct related investigations and adopt penalty guidelines; have HOAs pay an annual fee to fund the agency, provide notices for certain meetings, impose certain fines, and revise annual meeting requirements; and it provides for changes to the provisions relating to the transition of association control, and the requirements for voting by general and limited proxy and for board elections and vacancies.

The bill calls for the state agency to oversee the mediation of HOA disputes and maintain a list of certified mediators who the associations must use for these proceedings. HOA elections, which have historically been left to the protocols and procedures established under their respective declarations, would be required to adhere to the process that has been in place for condominium associations.

The changes involving elections are very significant, as are the measures pertaining to meeting notice procedures. If the bill is passed and these new provisions go into effect on July 1, 2016, HOAs across the state will need to be prepared to make dramatic changes to many of their policies and procedures. This will undoubtedly present some serious difficulties and challenges for many associations that have grown accustomed to their previous protocols over the years and decades, but the introduction of this bill appears to send the message that the time for uniformity in the state’s laws governing condominium and homeowners associations may now be upon us.

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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Many community association boards and property managers are still unfamiliar with Florida Statute 83.561 enacted this summer, offering limited protections to tenants in foreclosed homes.

During the 2008 – 2014 foreclosure crisis, a federal law was passed, The Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, which assisted bona fide tenants by providing them the opportunity to stay in the property after the completion of the foreclosure. The Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure act expired in December 2014 to be replaced by Florida Statute 83.561.

Similar to the federal act, Florida Statute 83.561 only applies to tenants who are renting under a valid arm’s length transaction rental agreement for a rate that is not significantly below market value, and where the tenant is not the mortgagor in the subject foreclosure or the child, spouse or parent of the mortgagor in the foreclosure.

Unlike the expired federal act, Florida Statute 83.561 requires a new owner, including an association, wishing to terminate the tenancy after acquiring a property via foreclosure, to provide the tenant with a 30-day written notice of termination, which should be in substantially the following form:

NOTICE TO TENANT OF TERMINATION

You are hereby notified that your rental agreement is terminated on the date of delivery of this notice, that your occupancy is terminated 30 days following the date of the delivery of this notice, and that I demand possession of the premises on …(date)…. If you do not vacate the premises by that date, I will ask the court for an order allowing me to remove you and your belongings from the premises. You are obligated to pay rent during the 30-day period for any amount that might accrue during that period. Your rent must be delivered to . . . (landlord’s name and address).

If the tenant fails to vacate the property after the 30-day period expires, the new owner may apply to the court for a writ of possession based upon a sworn affidavit that the 30-day notice of termination was delivered to the tenant and the tenant has failed to vacate the residence after the 30-day period has expired. If the court awards a writ of possession, the writ must be served on the tenant.

Unlike the federal act, Florida Statute 83.561 does not require for the new owner to intend to occupy the residence in order to terminate the tenancy, nor does it seek for the tenant to complete the terms of the rental agreement. Rather, the new law assist tenants in foreclosed homes by providing a 30-day window to seek alternate living arrangements, while ensuring compliance by the new owner of the tenant’s rights as afforded under Florida law.

Community associations that acquire title to a unit via foreclosure and wish to terminate a tenancy should consult with qualified legal counsel in order to ensure compliance with the requirements under Florida Statute 83.561.

MichaelChapnicksrhl-law.jpgFor the second consecutive day, an article on important issues for community associations authored by one of our firm’s partners appeared today as a guest column in the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s only business daily and official court newspaper. Partner Michael E. Chapnick with our West Palm Beach office wrote the article in today’s edition of the newspaper about the new electronic voting law for community associations. His article calls for the state’s Division of Condominiums to establish an approval and certification process for the e-voting systems providers. It reads:

“Properly implemented, electronic voting may enable associations to overcome the significant challenges created by so many investor-owned units and part-time residents who frequently do not participate in association votes, making it difficult for many associations to achieve quorum at members’ meetings and elections so that membership action can be taken.

However, there are some important and necessary measures that were built into the new law which will make the initial implementation of electronic voting extremely challenging for many associations.

With the voter identity verification and security protocols that are called for under the new law, online voting for associations will not be as simple as using an existing off-the-shelf electronic survey provider and adapting it for an association vote.

In fact, the vetting process for the vendors purporting to comply with all of the requirements under the new law will take some time, and the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation Division of Condominiums should move quickly to develop a vetting and certification process in order to help all of the associations in Florida to identify the providers that are in compliance with the statutory requirements.”

Michael’s article concludes:

“However, rather than leaving it up to every community association to conduct its own vetting process in order to determine which providers meet all of the law’s requirements, the onus should be on the state agency that oversees and enforces association election regulations as well as the other laws governing associations in Florida to create and implement a new vendor approval and certification process for the providers. The state’s Division of Condominiums is better equipped with the technical resources and expertise that is necessary to properly review and determine whether these online software application providers are implementing e-voting systems that meet all of the requirements and should be certified by the state for use by associations.

Electronic voting will not be a panacea for all of the issues caused by unit owner apathy and absenteeism in association votes and elections. There are many voters who will decline to use it and will wish to continue mailing in the completed ballots or voting in person at the meetings, so it is unlikely to completely replace the traditional voting methods, at least in the near future. It will, however, give the associations an important new tool for their toolbox that should greatly enhance their ability to conduct annual elections and obtain votes regarding alterations, amendments, reserves and other important association matters that require membership approval.

With the help of an effective approval and certification program for the e-voting system providers by the state, associations will be able to turn to electronic voting to help overcome some of the challenges that have plagued their votes and elections for decades.”

Our firm congratulates Michael for sharing his insight with the readers of the Daily Business Review on this important new law for community associations and calling on the state to enact an approval and certification process for the e-voting systems providers. Click here to read the complete article in the newspaper’s website (registration required).

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The premature adjournment “sine die” of the recent session of the Florida House of Representatives spelled the demise of various bills that had not yet been passed. One such bill was HB 611, which was the subject of one of our blog articles describing the various changes that were being proposed by the bill in connection with procedures and charges related to estoppels provided by community associations.

A bill that did pass both the House and Senate is HB 791, which soon will be sent to Gov. Scott for his final approval before it is enacted. This bill makes some important updates to the state’s laws governing community association practices and procedures, and it includes the following changes:

  • The requirement for electronic notices to be authorized by association’s bylaws for some meetings of the board, membership and association committees is eliminated.
  • Establishes that the role of the fining committee is to confirm or reject the fines levied by the board.
  • Suspension of voting rights or right to use common elements will apply to members as well as their tenants and guests, regardless of the number of units owned by the member, even if the delinquency or failure that resulted in the suspension arose from less than all of the multiple units owned by a member.
  • Proxies will be allowed to be submitted to the association via fax or email.
  • When voting rights are suspended, the voting interest allocated to the unit will be subtracted from the total number of voting interests.
  • Establishment of procedures for implementation of electronic online voting for elections and other unit owner votes.
  • A clarification that partial payments may be applied to outstanding amounts.
  • Extends the “Distressed Condominium Act” (i.e., the “bulk buyer” law) until 2018.
  • Amends the official records “catch-all” provision to include “written” records, as already appears in the HOA Act.
  • Names Chapter 720 the “Homeowners’ Association Act.”
  • Provides that the “governing documents” of an HOA include rules and regulations.
  • The failure to provide notice of recording amendment in an HOA does not affect the validity of the amendment.

Most of the foregoing changes help to clarify and update the existing statutes in an effort to enable associations to overcome some problem areas arising in connection with the laws governing condominium, cooperatives and homeowners associations. However, a few of the changes included in the bill, such as the introduction of electronic online voting, are expected to cause considerable issues as directors, managers and their legal counsel work to navigate through the process related to the implementation of such measures.

Association members, directors and community association property managers should be mindful of these changes and work closely with their legal counsel to address any questions regarding these changes should they eventually become law.

For the second consecutive year, new legislation aimed at increasing state oversight and regulation for homeowners associations did not receive the necessary support to become ratified by the state legislature. A bill that would have granted the Department of Business and Professional Regulation the authority to investigate complaints against HOAs and provide educational programs for HOA board members failed miserably, as it did not even make it to its first committee hearing.

The proposed bill sought to level the playing field for state regulatory oversight for both condominium associations and HOAs. Currently, condominium associations are governed by laws that give the state power to review complaints, issue fines and conduct recalls after tainted elections, while HOAs are financially responsible for their own mediations to resolve similar disputes.

Opponents of the expanded state oversight for HOAs note that these communities, mostly comprised of single-family homes, share fewer common areas than condominium communities. They believe the process that is now in place for HOAs serves to curtail frivolous complaints since homeowners are typically held economically responsible for their own legal costs. If all complaints are able to go before the state agency, the HOAs would be required to pay increased legal fees for the additional representation.

Flalegislature.jpgProponents of the bill believe the additional requirements for board member education, which would have been paid for by a new $2 annual fee per home, and the increased level of state oversight and regulatory enforcement would help diminish questionable practices by HOA boards that draw the ire of their members.

Our blog hosts up-to-date information on new legislation as well as important legal and administrative issues for condominium associations and HOAs. We encourage association directors and members, as well as property 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.

AEsteras.jpg MDeCastro.jpgBy: Awilda Esteras and Maryvel De Castro Valdes

In addition to the bills pertaining to construction defect litigation that our firm’s Georg Ketelhohn shared his insights on in previous articles in this blog as well as in a recent report in the Daily Business Review, another bill was recently introduced during the current session of the Florida Legislature that also presents significant concerns for community associations.

House Bill 611 (SB 736 in the Senate) aims to make major changes to the process, costs and effects of the estoppel certificates that are prepared by associations. Estoppel certificates are issued by associations, their attorneys or their property managers to provide the amounts owing to an association for a unit as of a particular date. Prospective buyers rely on the estoppel certificates to bind the association to the stated amount until the expiration date of the certificate.

The proposed bill intends to impose a maximum estoppel fee of $100 to $150, as opposed to a “reasonable fee” as the current law allows. Since the preparation of estoppel certificates can be highly detailed and labor intensive for experienced professionals, the newly proposed fee range is inadequate and may lead to increased management and legal fees that are passed on to associations for the preparation of these certificates, which in fairness should only be paid for by the buyers and sellers.

The bill also aims to eliminate the ability of an association and its agents to collect an estoppel fee prior to the closing of the sale of the underlying property by requiring that the estoppel certificate be paid from the proceeds of the sale. In addition, the proposed bill provides for extremely limited recourse for the collection of the fee should the closing never occur. Ultimately, the association may become liable for any fees that go uncollected.

flcap.jpgThe bill further proposes the reduction in the number of days that associations have to respond to estoppel requests from 15 days down to 10 days. In complex cases such as those that include fines levied against an account in addition to delinquent maintenance dues and/or litigation, the preparation of an estoppel certificate typically exceeds 10 days. According to the proposals found in the bill, associations that are unable or fail to meet the 10-day deadline will have effectively waived any claims for the amounts due that would have been provided in the estoppel certificate. This is an extreme measure that would seriously impact an association’s right to collect unpaid assessments.

Another important concern for associations is that the bill would require all estoppel certificates to be valid for 30 days from their issuance, and it prevents the association and its agents from collecting additional assessments or other costs that accrue within those 30 days. In the case where an estoppel certificate is being requested for a delinquent account in litigation, attorneys would either have to stay the case pending payment or would need to include additional attorney’s fees if there are pending matters to be addressed in the 30-day period from the issuance of the estoppel.

Lastly, the proposed bill would require a waiver language to be included in the estoppel certificate preventing the association from collecting moneys in excess of the amount set forth in the estoppel certificate.

For the professionals who prepare estoppel certificates for community associations on a regular basis, the measures that are being put forth in this bill appear to be drastically onerous. We encourage association directors, members and property managers to contact their state legislators to express their concerns and disapproval with this bill.

Click here to find the contact information for the legislators for your district.