The Art of the Covenant: Preserving HOA Restrictions

The covenants and restrictions found in the governing documents for homeowners associations are subject to the seldom discussed, but very important Florida Marketable Record Titles Act (“MRTA”).  Under the MRTA, encumbrances on real property, including a homeowners association’s covenants and restrictions (such as those that allow it to control aesthetics, issue violations and levy assessments), may be rendered unenforceable and extinguished 30 years after their date of recordation if not properly preserved or reaffirmed by the association beforehand (See Florida Statute 712).

The good news is that there is a streamlined and relatively simple 4 step process by which the association can ensure that its covenants and restrictions are not extinguished by the MRTA, and in doing so, avoid the possibility of homeowners later contending that the provisions of the community’s governing documents are inapplicable as to their property.

The first step, as if you did not see this one coming, is that the association must properly notice a meeting of the board of directors (hooray for more meetings!).  The association must mail or hand deliver the notice to all the members of the community at least 7 days prior to the meeting, and the notice must include the time and place of the meeting, as well as all the “Statement of Marketable Title Action” as is explicitly set out in Florida Statute 712.06.  A copy of the meeting notice should also be posted throughout the community.

The second step is the holding of the meeting.  At the meeting, the approval of at least 2/3 of the members of the board of directors will be necessary to properly authorize the preservation of the association’s covenants and restrictions (See 712.05).

Once authorized, the third step is for the association to have its attorney prepare and record a Notice of Preservation of Covenants and Restrictions in the public records of the county where the association is located.  The Notice must contain the name and address of the association, a full and complete description of all land affected by the notice, a copy of the applicable covenants and restrictions sought to be preserved, an attached affidavit of a board member attesting that the “Statement of Marketable Title Action” was previously provided to the members of the community and the Notice must be properly signed and notarized.

The fourth and final step is for the association to either arrange and pay for the clerk of court to mail a copy of the notice to all owners (by registered or certified mail) or alternatively (and what probably makes more sense), have the notice, including the recording book and page number, published once a week, for 2 weeks in a local newspaper.

Of course, the lesson here is simple but crucial.  A homeowners association’s ability to assess its members and to exercise certain levels of control are crucial elements of community living and every necessary step (or 4 of them) to preserve those powers must be taken.

Daniel Wasserstein

E-mail: danw@wassersteinpa.com

561-288-3999

Wheeling and Self Dealing: Can Directors Contract with the Association?

A fiduciary duty is defined as a relationship of trust and confidence between two or more parties.  In Florida, association board members owe a fiduciary duty to their fellow unit owners.  Florida Statute 718.111(1), which governs condominiums, sets forth that “the officers and directors of the association have a fiduciary relationship to the unit owners.”  Florida Statute 720.303(1), which governs homeowners associations, sets forth that “the officers and directors of an association have a fiduciary relationship to the members who are served by the association.”  As a result of these fiduciary relationships, there are several actions that are off limits to board members, but this has led to many misconceptions as well.  Possibly the most common misconception is that a board member (or his or her company) cannot contract with the association because it would be a conflict of interest and thereby, a breach of a fiduciary duty-this is not true.

Florida Statute 617.0832 deals with conflicts of interest for directors of non-profit corporations (ie: condos and HOAs).  It provides that “no contract or other transaction between a corporation and one or more of its directors or any other corporation, firm, association, or entity in which one or more of its directors are directors or officers or are financially interested shall be either void or voidable because of such relationship or interest” provided that 1) the fact of such relationship or interest is disclosed or known to those who are entitled to authorize the contract or transaction and 2) that the contract or transaction is fair and reasonable at the time it is authorized.

As long as this type of contract or transaction is before the board of directors for approval and is authorized by the affirmative vote of a majority of those directors who do not have a relationship or interest in the transaction (and as long as it is more than a single disinterested director that approves), the transaction will be deemed properly authorized under the statute.  It should also be noted that the mere presence or casting of a vote by a director having a relationship or interest in the transaction does not invalidate the process so long as the transaction is otherwise properly authorized.

The most important thing for a board member to consider is that while contracting with the association is statutorily permissible, it may nevertheless carry with it the appearance and stigma of self-dealing.  There is always a possibility that no matter how above board the transaction may be, other owners in the community are likely to think that the transacting director is acting with the same mindset as the cartoon character above.

Lesson: Don’t become the cartoon character.

Daniel Wasserstein

E-mail: danw@wassersteinpa.com

561-288-3999

Resignation May Not Prevent the Cessation of a Board Member’s Right to Designation of Your Representation…

…and this may lead to frustration and vexation!

Florida law and most association bylaws allow for board members of non-profit entities (such as condominium and homeowners associations) to tender their resignation at any time during their tenure.  The resignation is effective at the time it is tendered unless a later effective date is specified.   If the resignation is made effective as of a later date the board of directors may fill the pending vacancy before the effective date provided that the successor does not take office until the effective date.  Florida law and many bylaws further provides that the vacancy is to be filled by a majority vote of the “remaining” directors.  See Florida Statutes 617.0807, 617.0809 and your association’s bylaws.  Note: This procedure may be different for vacancies created by a recall.

The potential problem with this scenario is as follows.  Say a board member develops a conflict of interest, such as the filing of a lawsuit against the association, and that board member decides that he or she must resign from the board due to this circumstance.  That board member would be well within his or her rights to tender their resignation with a future effective date and the board could then decide to vote on a successor prior to the departure of the resigning member.  The question then arises as to whether the departing board member is afforded the right to participate in the vote for his or her successor.  Since the individual is still technically a board member at the time of the vote, he or she may be deemed a “remaining” director and therefore, may actually have the right to cast a vote despite the fact that such a literal interpretation of the word “remaining” may seem to confer an unintended right on the departing board member.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has dealt with this circumstance and has issued an opinion supporting this literal interpretation of the term “remaining” director.  In the matter of Rhoda Blau v. Martinique 2 Owners Association, Inc., Case No. 99-1880, the arbitrator in that entered an order stating that “it is apparent from the statutory sections set forth above (617.0807 and 617.0809) that a director who resigns with a delayed effective date may generally continue to exercise the authority conferred on board members, absent countervailing circumstances.”  The opinion does go on to clarify that these particular statutory provisions and the resulting literal interpretation of the term “remaining” directors would not apply if the vacancy at issue was the result of recall efforts.

In light of this information, associations should be wary of resignations with delayed effective dates and should ideally wait until the resigning board member vacates his or her position before a vote is held to select a successor.

Daniel Wasserstein

E-mail: danw@wassersteinpa.com

561-288-3999

The Dirty Deed…In Lieu of Foreclosure

When an owner decides that they simply cannot pay their accrued assessment arrearage, they often take steps to either maximize the amount of time that they can hold on to (ie: live in or rent) their property, or alternatively, may endeavor to quickly hand over the subject property to minimize their personal liability.  With regard to the latter, the delinquent owner may make the association an offer where the owner would agree to deed over the property rather than endure the foreclosure process.  In exchange for this quick turn over of title, referred to as a “deed-in-lieu” (in lieu of foreclosure), the owner usually requests a waiver of personal liability for the accrued debt.  Since foreclosure can be both time-consuming and costly, this is often an attractive option to an association, especially where the unit is in habitable condition and the association can quickly get a renter in place.

It is important, however, that the association do its homework before accepting such a deed.  The reason being that there may be other junior lienholders out there with rightful claims that are secured by the property.  The subject property may have no mortgage on it, leading the association to think that it is getting clear title by accepting a deed-in-lieu, but that is not necessarily true.  The association does get title to the property, but that title is still subject to junior claims that may exist against the property.  For example, if the original owner had work performed by a contractor before deeding the property over to the association and that contractor placed a lien, called a mechanic’s lien, on the property due to nonpayment, the contractor would still have a rightful encumbrance on the property which he or she could foreclose on and in doing so, dispossess the association of the property.  Of course, had the association learned of this encumbrance and foreclosed on its own lien rather than accepting a deed-in-lieu, these types of junior claims would have been wiped out (ie: foreclosed) and the association, if it took title through the foreclosure process, would have obtained clear title rather than what this author calls a “dirty deed.”

The lesson is that the quick and easy option often has hidden pitfalls and it is important that your association consult an attorney to discuss and review these types of decisions before any action is taken.

Daniel Wasserstein

E-mail: danw@wassersteinpa.com

561-416-0170

Liens are Fine, but Fines are Not Liens

When owners choose to live in a community with an association, they implicitly agree to comply with all of the provisions contained in their association’s governing documents.  In those documents there are almost always restrictions on certain things such as the size and type of pets they are allowed to have, the color of paint they can use for exterior surfaces and even the type of vehicles that can be parked in their driveway.  Break one of these rules by say, parking a semi truck in their driveway, and they should expect to hear about it from their association by way of a violation notice and subsequent fine.

Once a violation has been issued and a resulting fine has been approved, the next obstacle from the association’s standpoint, especially in these challenging economic times, is how to actually collect on the fine.  The question has recently been raised as to whether an association can place a lien on an owner’s property for accrued fines as an association has the ability to do for unpaid assessments.  The simple answer to this inquiry for associations in Florida is generally, no.

Florida Statute 718.303(3), which governs condominium associations sets forth quite concisely that:

  • The association may levy reasonable fines for the failure of the owner of the unit or its occupant, licensee, or invitee to comply with any provision of the declaration, the association bylaws, or reasonable rules of the association. A fine may not become a lien against a unit.

Florida Statute 720.305(2) which governs homeowners associations sets forth in relevant part that:

  • The association may levy reasonable fines of up to $100 per violation against any member or any member’s tenant, guest, or invitee for the failure of the owner of the parcel or its occupant, licensee, or invitee to comply with any provision of the declaration, the association bylaws, or reasonable rules of the association. A fine may be levied for each day of a continuing violation, with a single notice and opportunity for hearing, except that the fine may not exceed $1,000 in the aggregate unless otherwise provided in the governing documents. A fine of less than $1,000 may not become a lien against a parcel.

Based on these cited provisions, the only instances where a fine may be able to become a lien is when a homeowners association fine is equal to exactly $1,000 (see additional commentary below) or where a homeowners association’s governing documents specifically provide that fines can exceed $1,000 in the aggregate.  Absent such language, it would be contrary to statute for a condominium association or homeowners association in Florida to lien an owner’s property due to unpaid fines.  So, while liens (for assessments) are fine, fines (for violations) are not liens.

Daniel Wasserstein

E-mail: danw@wassersteinpa.com

561-288-3999

Got Rent? Going After Delinquent Owners’ Rental Income

Its 2012 and for most associations, their biggest challenge this year, as with past years, will be delinquencies in their community and the all-important “accounts receivable” column on their balance sheet.  For many associations, even more irksome than a unit owner continuing to reside in the community without paying assessments is that same delinquent owner renting out their property and deriving income from it.

Fortunately, the Florida legislature recently acknowledged this circumstance and codified amendments to Florida Statutes 718 and 720 (Condo and HOA, respectively, see “Useful Links” tab above) empowering associations to send demand letters to tenants of delinquent owners, requiring that they immediately begin tendering their monthly rent payments directly to the association instead of the owner of the property.  Of course, a key element to the success of this program has been the threat of eviction.  In addition to providing an association with the right to demand rent payments from tenants of delinquent owners, the applicable statutes (specifically, 718.116 and 720.3085) also allow the association to evict those tenants who refuse to comply.  Since the word “eviction” generally strikes fear in the heart of most tenants, especially those who are able to pay their rent and generally like where they reside, it is this attorney’s experience that tenants who receive a demand letter often contact the association very quickly to arrange for the paying of their rent.

The tenant rent demand letter serves as a low cost way to generate an influx of payments which will reduce an association’s assessment arrearages and  accounts receivable.  Because of the low cost and high success rate, it is this attorney’s recommendation that any Florida condominium or homeowners association ensure that their attorney is using this valuable tool on their behalf.

Daniel Wasserstein

E-mail: danw@wassersteinpa.com

561-288-3999