Two New Cases Board Members and Managers Need to Know About
CASE No. 1: On June 12, 2020, the Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal (“5th DCA”) entered its opinion in Latheresa Williams, On Behalf Of Herself And All Others Similarly Situated v. Salt Springs Resort Association, Inc., and Bosshardt Property Management, LLC., Case No. 5D18-3913 (Fla. 5th DCA 2020), The holding of this case echoes advice I have all too often provided to board members and managers to NOT publish what is commonly referred to as a “deadbeat list.” This type of list is posted in the community and identifies each debtor’s name and sometimes the assessment balance past due, too. No good ever comes from publication of such a list. In fact, the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (the “FCCPA”) forbids it if such publication of the deadbeat list is to harass and/or annoy the debtor.
More specifically, section 559.72, Florida Statutes, provides in relevant part that “[i]n collecting consumer debts, no person shall… [p]ublish or post, threaten to publish or post, or cause to be published or posted before the general public individual names or any list of names of debtors, commonly known as a deadbeat list, for the purpose of enforcing or attempting to enforce collection of consumer debts.”
In this case, the plaintiff was seeking class action status for all others similarly treated. This could lead to tremendous liability should discovery later evidence that the association and/or its management company regularly published deadbeat lists. At trial, the court had granted a motion to dismiss filed by the association based on a prior case, Bryan v. Clayton, also a 5th DCA case dating back to 1977 where the Court held that maintenance assessments were not “debts” for purposes of the FCCPA. In order to re-consider the prior Bryan decision, all of the 5th DCA sitting appellate judges participated in the Williams case, a process legally known as an “En Banc” style of review.
The Court in Williams took note that the FCCPA is designed to protect consumers and does not limit unlawful activities only to “debt collectors,” but rather to “all persons” involved in the collection of a debt. By way of contrast, the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FFDCPA) applies only to debt collectors, which excludes the association and arguably its management company, and not to “all persons” involved in the collection of a debt, as in the FCCPA.
Under the prior Bryan holding, a past due assessment obligation was not even considered a “debt” for purposes of the FCCPA and the FFDCPA. In the recent Williams case, the Court went to great lengths to explain that, in fact, an association assessment obligation “is a debt which arose out of an obligation by a consumer out of a money, property, insurance or services transaction which is primarily for personal, family, or household purposes” and is therefore subject to FCCPA.
Thus, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. While, its unknown how the plaintiff’s attempt for a class action certification will resolve, it is extremely likely that one or more defendants will be found to have violated the FCCPA for having published the “deadbeat list.” The takeaway from the Williams case is to never, ever publish a list of association debtors. This does not at all mean that the board cannot be provided a list of those members delinquent in their assessment obligations. However, it does mean such a list should not be made readily available to the membership by posting or mailing, etc.
CASE No. 2: On May 20, 2020, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal entered its opinion in Old Cutler Lakes by the Bay Community Association, Inc. v. SRP SUB, LLC, Case No. 3D19-528 (Fla. 3d DCA 2020) regarding the liability of a third-party purchaser at a mortgage foreclosure sale for assessments that came due prior to the third-party acquiring title to the property. The Court’s holding in this case is in line with its prior holding in the case of Beacon Hill Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Colfin Ah-Florida 7, LLC, 221 So. 3d 710 (Fla. 3d DCA 2017), which based its decision on the landmark case decided by Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal in Pudlit 2 Joint Venture, LLP v. Westwood Gardens Homeowners Association, Inc., 169 So.3d 145 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015).
In the Old Cutler Lakes case, SRP SUB, LLC (“SRP”) was the successful bidder at a foreclosure sale on a first mortgage held by Wells Fargo. After obtaining title by a certificate of title, SRP filed an action for declaratory relief seeking a determination as to its liability for assessments that accrued prior to the issuance of the certificate of title. In relevant part, the Declaration of Covenant and Restrictions of Old Cutler Lakes by the Bay (“Declaration”) provided the following:
The sale or transfer of any Lot pursuant to the foreclosure or any proceeding in lieu thereof of a first mortgage meeting the above qualifications, shall extinguish the lien of such assessments as to payments which became due prior to such sale or transfer.
This language is similar to the language contained in the declarations in the Beacon Hill and Pudlit 2 cases. In these cases, the courts applied a constitutional principal prohibiting the impairment of contracts in deciding that the statutory safe harbor did not control over the provisions of the declarations where the statute did not require such application and the declarations did not contain “Kaufman” language, which has the effect of making amendments to the Florida Statutes automatically applicable to a declaration as they are “amended from time to time.” As the provisions of the declarations expressly created rights for third-party purchasers, the third-party purchasers are “intended third-party beneficiaries” to such provisions which rights cannot be impaired pursuant to the constitutional principal prohibiting the impairment of contracts. In following the holdings of the Beacon Hill and Pudlit 2 cases, SRP was found not liable for any of the past due assessments that accrued prior to the issuance of the certificate of title. Thus, as with many declarations which have not been amended since their creation by the community’s developer, these, as yet to be amended, declarations may provide for a complete wipe out of all assessments that accrued prior to the transfer of title as a result of a mortgage foreclosure action or by deed in lieu of foreclosure.
The takeaway from the cases discussed above emphasizes the importance of reviewing and updating the association’s declaration, with the guidance of your association’s legal counsel, to ensure that it provides for necessary and available protections for the association and its members, including the use of “Kaufman” language, if appropriate to collect as much overdue assessment revenue as possible.
(Reprinted with permission from the August 2020 edition of the Florida Community Association Journal)