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Associations Facing Lawsuits Over Claimed Billing Errors

Posted in Assessment Collection

Condominium and community association owners are apparently taking advantage of the old adage"the best defense is a good offense".

There seems to be a new trend – not a good one – where owners file lawsuits as a result of the amount claimed by the association as due on an estoppel certificate. Condo and HOA laws require the association to issue an estoppel certificate or statement indicating what is due and owing with respect to the property in connection with a sale or other transfer.  In most cases the new owner must pay for any delinquency accrued on the account.  The former & current owner are jointly and severally liable for the overdue balance.  However, the law does not prevent the new owner from seeking reimbursement from the seller/former owner. Consequently, in practically all voluntary sales (including short sales or distressed sales), the title company or other agent handling the transaction will request an estoppel certificate from the association and ensure those amounts are paid in connection with the closing. In some cases the buyer and seller negotiate for the buyer to take over installment payments of a special assessment, but most of the time the title insurer (and attorneys) will insist on payment of all outstanding obligations.

First mortgagees acquiring title as a result of foreclosure (or deed in lieu of foreclosure) are entitled to a “safe haven” – they are not responsible for all past due amounts, just the lesser of 12 months of assessments or 1% of the original mortgage amount, with limited exceptions.
Associations that acquire title were also subject to this joint and several liability but that has changed as a result of HB 1195 somewhat. The new law states:

An association, or its successor or assignee, that acquires title to a unit through foreclosure if its lien for assessments is not liable for any unpaid assessments, late fees, interest, or reasonable attorney’s fees and costs that came due before the association’s acquisition of title in favor if any other association … which holds a superior lien interest on the unit.
 

Over the past year or two I have learned about many lawsuits filed by new owners when the association tried to collect amounts it arguably wasn’t entitled to collect. In some of the cases first mortgagees were billed for late fees for the entire duration of the delinquency, attorney’s fees incurred by the association in connection with the bank’s foreclosure and a host of other charges that became due before the Certificate of Title (in addition to the 12 months or 1%).  In other cases, buyers or mortgagees were billed for the entire delinquency on the account, even if the association was the previous owner.  Kate Berry, in an article for American Banker, explained that mortgage servicers typically will not front the funds to pay HOA/condo dues and expenses even though the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae require the servicer to pay until the property is sold.

These lawsuits haven’t made their way through the appellate courts, so we don’t have precedent to rely upon yet. Nonetheless, it is my hope that this ‘trend’ will prompt association boards to have frank and open discussions with counsel regarding the appropriate amount to bill new owners for past-due balances, to minimize the risk of a lawsuit and avoid the time, expense and effort necessary to defend a lawsuit.
 

  • Cindy Hayman

    Do reserve funding levels have any impact on the ability of a prospective condominium unit buyer to obtain a mortgage loan through any of the FHA, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac instruments? If so, what percentage of full funding is required? Or is the requirement a percentage of the total annual budget? Please cite the reference.
    RESPONSE: We have several posts on this site concerning FHA / Fannie Mae guidelines. New guidelines have recently been issued. Please go to http://www.fha.com for information about FHA loan requirements. Here is a link to a useful presentation http://www.caict.org/FHA/January13_managers_lunch2.pdf
    I do not know the date of this presentation and therefore cannot say whether the information is current.

  • MH Gilberg

    My Question deals indirectly with the subject matter of this note. In HOA’s which utilize a “pooled reserve” method, is it appropriate for the Board to ignore computing the amount of the annual reserve to be raised based upon the depreciation schedule of existing assets which in the future will need repair or replacement? Is it appropriate for the Board to apply a substantial or all of the amount of reserves to the purchase and/or installation of betterments – i.e. items that never exisited and were not part of the community improvements or items which are listed on the schedule of depreciable assets?
    If the answers to either are “NO” what are members remedies?
    RESPONSE: The HOA statute provides the following with regard to reserves:
    (6) BUDGETS.—
    (a) The association shall prepare an annual budget that sets out the annual operating expenses. The budget must reflect the estimated revenues and expenses for that year and the estimated surplus or deficit as of the end of the current year. The budget must set out separately all fees or charges paid for by the association for recreational amenities, whether owned by the association, the developer, or another person. The association shall provide each member with a copy of the annual budget or a written notice that a copy of the budget is available upon request at no charge to the member. The copy must be provided to the member within the time limits set forth in subsection (5).
    (b) In addition to annual operating expenses, the budget may include reserve accounts for capital expenditures and deferred maintenance for which the association is responsible. If reserve accounts are not established pursuant to paragraph (d), funding of such reserves is limited to the extent that the governing documents limit increases in assessments, including reserves. If the budget of the association includes reserve accounts established pursuant to paragraph (d), such reserves shall be determined, maintained, and waived in the manner provided in this subsection. Once an association provides for reserve accounts pursuant to paragraph (d), the association shall thereafter determine, maintain, and waive reserves in compliance with this subsection. This section does not preclude the termination of a reserve account established pursuant to this paragraph upon approval of a majority of the total voting interests of the association. Upon such approval, the terminating reserve account shall be removed from the budget.
    (c)1. If the budget of the association does not provide for reserve accounts pursuant to paragraph (d) and the association is responsible for the repair and maintenance of capital improvements that may result in a special assessment if reserves are not provided, each financial report for the preceding fiscal year required by subsection (7) must contain the following statement in conspicuous type:
    THE BUDGET OF THE ASSOCIATION DOES NOT PROVIDE FOR RESERVE ACCOUNTS FOR CAPITAL EXPENDITURES AND DEFERRED MAINTENANCE THAT MAY RESULT IN SPECIAL ASSESSMENTS. OWNERS MAY ELECT TO PROVIDE FOR RESERVE ACCOUNTS PURSUANT TO SECTION 720.303(6), FLORIDA STATUTES, UPON OBTAINING THE APPROVAL OF A MAJORITY OF THE TOTAL VOTING INTERESTS OF THE ASSOCIATION BY VOTE OF THE MEMBERS AT A MEETING OR BY WRITTEN CONSENT.
    2. If the budget of the association does provide for funding accounts for deferred expenditures, including, but not limited to, funds for capital expenditures and deferred maintenance, but such accounts are not created or established pursuant to paragraph (d), each financial report for the preceding fiscal year required under subsection (7) must also contain the following statement in conspicuous type:
    THE BUDGET OF THE ASSOCIATION PROVIDES FOR LIMITED VOLUNTARY DEFERRED EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS, INCLUDING CAPITAL EXPENDITURES AND DEFERRED MAINTENANCE, SUBJECT TO LIMITS ON FUNDING CONTAINED IN OUR GOVERNING DOCUMENTS. BECAUSE THE OWNERS HAVE NOT ELECTED TO PROVIDE FOR RESERVE ACCOUNTS PURSUANT TO SECTION 720.303(6), FLORIDA STATUTES, THESE FUNDS ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE RESTRICTIONS ON USE OF SUCH FUNDS SET FORTH IN THAT STATUTE, NOR ARE RESERVES CALCULATED IN ACCORDANCE WITH THAT STATUTE.
    (d) An association is deemed to have provided for reserve accounts if reserve accounts have been initially established by the developer or if the membership of the association affirmatively elects to provide for reserves. If reserve accounts are not initially provided by the developer, the membership of the association may elect to do so upon the affirmative approval of a majority of the total voting interests of the association. Such approval may be obtained by vote of the members at a duly called meeting of the membership or by the written consent of a majority of the total voting interests of the association. The approval action of the membership must state that reserve accounts shall be provided for in the budget and must designate the components for which the reserve accounts are to be established. Upon approval by the membership, the board of directors shall include the required reserve accounts in the budget in the next fiscal year following the approval and each year thereafter. Once established as provided in this subsection, the reserve accounts must be funded or maintained or have their funding waived in the manner provided in paragraph (f).
    (e) The amount to be reserved in any account established shall be computed by means of a formula that is based upon estimated remaining useful life and estimated replacement cost or deferred maintenance expense of each reserve item. The association may adjust replacement reserve assessments annually to take into account any changes in estimates of cost or useful life of a reserve item.
    (f) After one or more reserve accounts are established, the membership of the association, upon a majority vote at a meeting at which a quorum is present, may provide for no reserves or less reserves than required by this section. If a meeting of the unit owners has been called to determine whether to waive or reduce the funding of reserves and such result is not achieved or a quorum is not present, the reserves as included in the budget go into effect. After the turnover, the developer may vote its voting interest to waive or reduce the funding of reserves. Any vote taken pursuant to this subsection to waive or reduce reserves is applicable only to one budget year.
    (g) Funding formulas for reserves authorized by this section must be based on a separate analysis of each of the required assets or a pooled analysis of two or more of the required assets.
    1. If the association maintains separate reserve accounts for each of the required assets, the amount of the contribution to each reserve account is the sum of the following two calculations:
    a. The total amount necessary, if any, to bring a negative component balance to zero.
    b. The total estimated deferred maintenance expense or estimated replacement cost of the reserve component less the estimated balance of the reserve component as of the beginning of the period the budget will be in effect. The remainder, if greater than zero, shall be divided by the estimated remaining useful life of the component.
    The formula may be adjusted each year for changes in estimates and deferred maintenance performed during the year and may include factors such as inflation and earnings on invested funds.
    2. If the association maintains a pooled account of two or more of the required reserve assets, the amount of the contribution to the pooled reserve account as disclosed on the proposed budget may not be less than that required to ensure that the balance on hand at the beginning of the period the budget will go into effect plus the projected annual cash inflows over the remaining estimated useful life of all of the assets that make up the reserve pool are equal to or greater than the projected annual cash outflows over the remaining estimated useful lives of all the assets that make up the reserve pool, based on the current reserve analysis. The projected annual cash inflows may include estimated earnings from investment of principal and accounts receivable minus the allowance for doubtful accounts. The reserve funding formula may not include any type of balloon payments.
    (h) Reserve funds and any interest accruing thereon shall remain in the reserve account or accounts and shall be used only for authorized reserve expenditures unless their use for other purposes is approved in advance by a majority vote at a meeting at which a quorum is present. Prior to turnover of control of an association by a developer to parcel owners, the developer-controlled association shall not vote to use reserves for purposes other than those for which they were intended without the approval of a majority of all nondeveloper voting interests voting in person or by limited proxy at a duly called meeting of the association.

  • kevin burke

    Can the association stop voting rights on a home owner when they payed and received receipt for payment,because of vindictiveness did not want to loss the election? P.S .the state was forced by law to count votes and have not made any change in board.
    RESPONSE: The statute only addresses suspension of voting rights as a result of non-payment. In a condo setting the owners still have the option of petitioning for an election monitor.

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