Rules and rule enforcement

As many of my readers know, among the topics frequently discussed on this blog are the many issues facing resident owned communities when dealing with the Fair Housing Act.

I’ve recently been speaking to community association managers and ROC board members about the importance of properly responding to and evaluating requests made by current or prospective residents for reasonable accommodations such as pets or caregivers.

I always begin my presentation with a brief history of the Fair Housing Act and its roots in the Civil Rights movement and the legislation that movement inspired–legislation enacted with the goal of eliminating unlawful discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as race, religion, or disability,

It appears that there is still much to be done before that goal is met.  Last Thursday’s Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that housing discrimination is still occurring in Sarasota County.   Investigators found numerous instances of discrimination against minorities and persons with disabilities in Sarasota, Venice, and North Port as well as in the unincorporated areas of Sarasota County.

The article notes that the investigation was conducted, at least in part, by "testers" posing as as persons seeking housing or financing to help purchase homes.

We’ve been cautioning ROCs for some time  that these "testers" would eventually turn their attention to other areas of our state after focusing on the larger cities on Florida’s east coast and the Orlando area.  

Managers and board members in resident owned communities clearly have yet another reason to comply with the Fair Housing Laws.

 

 

I wanted to post two recent  articles related to the death of Trayvon Martin.

The first discusses the potential liability facing the Retreat at Twin Lakes Homeowners’ Association as Trayvon was apparently shot and killed by a member of that  association’s "neighborhood watch" group.

The second release was published by the Community Associations Institute in response to this incident and contains much useful information.

I hope that any community association that has a "neighborhood watch" program or is considering starting a "neighborhood watch" group takes the time to review and carefully digest these two articles and would strongly suggest that ROC managers and board members consult with their attorneys and insurance professionals as part of their decision-making process.

It’s no secret that the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing providers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.   An community association thus must make a "reasonable accommodation" to a disabled current or prospective resident who requires that accommodation to "use and enjoy a dwelling".

We’ve recently been contacted about homeowners in resident owned communities claiming that their animals are "service animals".   One association is currently dealing with a unit owner who had previously been allowed to have a dog in her home as a reasonable accommodation even though this ROC was a "no pet" community.   This unit owner apparently has replaced that dog with another dog and is alleging that this new dog is a "service dog," and can be walked throughout the community, even though the reasonable accommodation granted to the unit owner was conditioned on the dog remaining on the unit owner’s lot while in the community.

The unit owner provided the manager with "Service Dog Paper Work" that included an "identification card" for the pet stating "I’m a Service Dog In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990".  Another card identified the dog by name, date of birth, registration number, and "handler" (identified by the unit owner’s last name).

Becoming a "service animal" requires much more than a few papers, cards, or other items provided by companies gladly accepting the $150 (or more) from pet owners who want to "identify their canine helper" as a "service dog".

Here’s what the U.S. Department of Justice has to say about "service animals" as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act:

  • Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities–miniature horses are the only other animals that can qualify as "service animals"
  • Service animals are working animals, not pets
  • The work or task a dog has been trained to perform must be directly related to the person’s disability
  • Finally, dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act

In other words, the documents provided by these companies do not–without more evidence–prove that a pet qualifies as a "service animal".

Florida Statute Section 413.08 defines "service animal" and does not specifically prohibit species other than dogs or miniature ponies from qualifying as "service animals" but does require that the animal be trained to perform tasks for individuals with a disability and also specifies that a service animal is not a pet.

We’ve determined that the company that provided this unit owner with the "service animal certification kit" for her pet was not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Justice or any governmental agency charged with enforcing the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Any association confronted with these "service animal" papers should contact its attorney immediately–and any unit owner that has paid for these documents should strongly consider contacting the Federal Trade Commission.

I’d like to hear from other communities that have been confronted with these "service dog" certification papers.

 

Based on the responses I’ve received from my recent blog entries and presentations on  fines and suspensions of use rights, it’s clear that these topics are "hot issues" in resident owned communities throughout Florida.

Although the Florida Statutes governing condominium, cooperative and mandatory homeowners associations all recognize an association’s power to fine or suspend use rights of unit owners or parcel owners (or their tenants or guests), I’d suggest ROCs consider the costs and benefits of instituting these procedures.   Board members in community associations should weigh numerous factors when considering whether to use fines and suspensions, including the following:

Do the association’s members want to give any of their neighbors the power to fine them or suspend their rights to use the common facilities?  I’ve been in several communities where the membership has clearly and convincingly expressed the concern that a member may be fined solely because of a grudge or other "agenda" of one of his or her neighbors that happens to serve on that fining or suspension committee.    Regardless of the type of safeguards that an association tries to build into its rules or policies governing the operation of that committee, many residents simply don’t want to give any of their neighbors the power to assess fines against them that may reach $1000.

And what about the homeowners in a resident owned manufactured housing cooperative or condominium that are not shareholders in the cooperative or condominium association?   Those homeowners are not "unit owners" under Chapter 718 or 719 of the Florida Statutes and are thus not governed by the fining and suspension provisions of those Chapters.   Their responsibilities are governed by Chapter 723 of the Florida Statutes and the rental prospectus.  It’s doubtful that many rental prospectuses allow the park owner (in this case, the cooperative or condominium association) to fine a non-shareholder homeowner or suspend his or her use rights–and even more doubtful that any such provision in a rental prospectus would be deemed legal and enforceable under current Florida law.    How does an association’s board of directors justify a situation where the non-shareholders (who are not subject to fines or suspension of use rights) are treated more favorably than the shareholders?    I can certainly see that situation creating a great deal of controversy and making it more difficult for the association to market and sell membership shares in the cooperative, or units in the condominium, to prospective purchasers.

Those are just two points to consider when deciding if a community should institute or maintain a fining and/or suspension procedure.

Remember–just because a community is allowed to have a fining and suspension committee doesn’t mean that the community must have one.

Finally, for those long time followers that recall my entries on the "music police," here’s a link to a story that appeared this week in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on a federal lawsuit filed by our friends at Broadcast Music Inc. against a tavern in the Manatee county community of Ellenton. 

And on that cheery note, my best wishes to everyone for a very happy and healthy holiday season!

I was born over a decade after the "day that will live in infamy" but it’s still hard to believe that seventy years have passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor.  

I’ve been to Hawaii twice and on both occasions (once with my then young children) have visited the Memorial.   The power and emotional impact of the Memorial and its surroundings cannot be described.   Sites such as Pearl Harbor and the beaches at Normandy instruct all of us in ways that mere words cannot about the sacrifices made by countless young men and women to protect the freedoms we all too often take for granted.

I’ve opened my most recent seminars with a summary of a very unsettling story that recently appeared on "Sixty Minutes" about families that were forced to live in cars and trucks because they could not afford any other type of shelter.   That the families featured in this report lived in the Orlando area was even more distressing.

I’ll have yet another upsetting article to discuss at this month’s remaining seminars:  a report that over 4,500 homes owned by members of our military may have been illegally foreclosed.   I hope that this story does not get buried and becomes a primary concern of our legislators and the agencies that we entrust to protect the rights of those that serve to defend our liberty.  

Jody Gabel and I have filed numerous eviction or foreclosure actions for the community association we represent and have always taken great care to follow the provisions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.    That includes verifying whether or not the homeowners against whom eviction or foreclosure is being sought are currently serving in our military.

Our country’s Supreme Court has stated that this Act must be read with "an eye friendly to those who dropped their affairs to answer their country’s call."

Given the tremendous price that our servicemen and women pay every day on our behalf and the growing number of homeless families in our country, ensuring that the homes of our fellow citizens serving in the military are protected from wrongful foreclosures and evictions seems to be the least that we can do.  

I hope to see many of you at our seminar tomorrow at Venice Isle Estates, next Wednesday at Westwinds in Bradenton, or at my presentation at the SWFROC meeting at Tamiami Village in North Fort Myers on December 21.

We’ve got a very busy five or six weeks ahead of us with several chances for managers and board members in resident owned communities to hear from us:

  • I’ll be speaking about fines and suspending privileges as well as pet issues at the Mid-Florida ROC meeting at the Molokai community in Leesburg on Tuesday morning, November 29th.

Bill Korp and I will be making presentations on elections, budgets, and a number of other topics at our upcoming ROC "roundtables":

Our "roundtables" begin at 10 A.M. and end between noon and 12:30.  These events are great for board members that want to learn and also network with residents from other communities.  Refreshments are served and there’s no charge.   If you’re interested in attending and haven’t already rsvp’d, please email either Kathy Sawdo (ksawdo@lutzbobo.com) or Karen Midlam (kmidlam@lutzbobo.com).  Just let either of them know which one of these "roundtables" you’ll be attending, how many will be attending from your community, and whether you’ll need directions to the host community.

I’ll also be speaking at Tamiami Village in North Fort Myers on the morning of December 21 for the monthly meeting of SWFROC and will be presenting a seminar on the procedures and requirements for the election of directors in ROCs after the January 4 breakfast meeting of the West Florida chapter of the Community Associations Institute.

I hope to see you at one or more of these events.

Have a happy and relaxing Thanksgiving surrounded by friends and family.   Go Gators and Go Blue!

 

As many of my readers know, while my wife and children graduated from the University of Florida, I graduated from the University of Michigan and received my law degree from Ohio State.   I was born and raised on Big Ten football and bleed maize and blue (to the dismay of my Buckeye friends and family).

Penn State joined the Big Ten about twenty years ago and there have been many memorable games between the Nittany Lions and my beloved Wolverines–while the players changed, and other coaches left the profession, Joe Paterno remained as the symbol of Penn State.  In many ways, he was regarded as the shining example of all that was and is good about big-time college athletics.

I spent part of last night reading (with shock and outrage) all 23 pages of the grand jury report that resulted in the charges against Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator under Paterno at Penn State, as well as  the university’s athletic director and the school’s vice president for finance and business.   I will not post the link to that report as it is both graphic and horrifying in detailing how Sandusky allegedly abused at least 8 young boys and how Penn State’s administrators allegedly allowed this abuse to occur.

Earlier this afternoon, Joe Paterno issued a statement that he would be retiring at the end of this football season.

My partner, Jody Gabel, and I, find ourselves more and more frequently helping communities struggle with the very real concerns raised by sexual offenders or predators. It’s certainly understandable that many residents feel threatened when they discover that there is a sexual offender or predator in their midst.

Here are a few thoughts and suggestions that may be helpful:

  • Screening of prospective residents is absolutely essential.  The best way to deal with a sexual predator is before he or she becomes a resident in the community.  I advise ROCs we represent  to screen any person that intends on occupying a home in the community for any period of time greater than one month.   Once the predator or sexual offender moves into the community, the amount of time, effort, and expense involved in trying to remove him or her will be substantial, and there’s no guarantee that the offender or predator will be required to move.   We also suggest that our clients use a professional screening company for all residency applications–there are a number of very good companies that focus on this very important task.
  • While a community may have to allow a resident to have a caregiver as a "reasonable accommodation" under the Fair Housing Act, the community should insist that the proposed caregiver undergo screening.   The last thing a ROC manager or board wants to deal with is a "caregiver" who is a convicted sexual predator.

When it’s discovered that a person who already lives in the community has a record of being either a sexual predator or sexual offender, a number of factors must be considered:

Did the offender/predator lie or withhold information on the application for residency?

Did the offender/predator become a resident before the community’s rules (if any) requiring screening and/or approval of the association to the residency went into effect?

Was the resident convicted of the offense after he or she moved into the community?

How long ago did the offense occur and what’s the nature of the offense?   There’s certainly a difference between a resident who was convicted 40 years ago (when he was 19)  of having improper relations (and thus may be a registered offender) with his 17 year old girl friend (who happens to be his wife of 39 years) and the 56 year old resident who has been convicted of being a sexual predator on several occasions in the last decade.

I have always advised against posting information about a resident’s real or alleged record as a sexual offender or predator.   Errors can be made and neither the residents in the community nor the association itself is well served by spreading information that turns out to be misleading or false.   The better course of action is to simply post a notice in the community clubhouse or other public area advising that anyone that wishes to determine whether any registered sexual predators or offenders live in or near the community can do so by visiting Florida’s Sexual Offenders and Predators  Website.

And, as always, when in doubt, contact legal counsel.  These are extremely difficult issues and the association’s attorney can help the community navigate these very troubled waters.

I’m updating this entry while watching the press conference conducted by a member of Penn State’s Board of Trustees where Joe Paterno’s firing has just been announced.   What a nightmarish end to his tenure and a unfathomable taint on his legacy.

 

The very successful and well attended 2nd Annual Dowd, Whitaker & Associates Community  Festival was held in Venice earlier this week.   I was pleased to be one of the presenters at the Festival and had the opportunity to speak to an impressive number of members and managers of resident owned cooperatives throughout southwest Florida.

I covered a number of topics during my presentation but the one that generated the most discussion involved Florida Statute Section 719.303 and in particular the provisions relating to fines and suspension of  use rights for failure to comply with the cooperative documents or the association’s reasonable rules.

Here are a few important pieces of information from that presentation:

1.   The authorization to assess fines or suspend use rights or voting rights does not need to be included in the community’s governing documents.

2.   Fines cannot exceed $100 per violation or $1000 total but a fine may be assessed on the basis of each day of a continuing violation.

3.   Fines may not become a lien on a unit under this statute.

4.   Fines may not be assessed and use rights may not be suspended unless the unit owner (or, if applicable, the unit’s licensee or invitee) is provided with reasonable notice and the opportunity for a hearing before a committee of other unit owners.   If the committee does not agree with the fine or suspension, the fine or suspension can not be imposed.   I do not see any provision in the statute that prevents board members from serving on this committee.

5.     Even if the association’s bylaws specifically permit closed committee meetings pursuant to Florida Statute Section 719.106(1)(c), I’d suggest that the safer course of action may be to keep these hearings open to the general members–since the statute clearly provides that the committee’s decision not to impose a fine or suspension prevents the board and the association from imposing the fine or suspension, I’m concerned that this committee may be held to "take final action on behalf of the board" and thus not be allowed to hold its hearings behind closed doors.  

The association can also suspend voting and use rights where a member is more than 90 days delinquent in paying any monetary obligation owed to the association.   There’s no need for a hearing in these situations and I’ll go into further detail in my next blog entry.

 

 

 

 

Lindsay S. Smith, an attorney in the Denver office of Winzenburg, Leff, Purvis and Payne, recently posted a great entry on her firm’s Colorado Home Owners Association Law blog.  As you’ll see from her article, Florida ROCs aren’t the only ones with residents that take it upon themselves to "befriend" and feed wild animals–in this case,stray and feral cats.  Unfortunately for the homeowners in this particular community, its association had allowed the resident to feed these feral cats for a number of years before filing a lawsuit against that resident–and, because of the association’s delay in taking action, the court held that the association could not stop the offending homeowner from continuing to feed these animals.

I read Ms. Smith’s entry several days before my colleague Bill Korp and I had lunch with the managers of two of the ROCs we represent in southwest Florida.  I was thinking about her article when I asked the managers whether there were any problems with wild animals in their communities. 

Each manager had a tale to tell:

  • Muscovy Ducks had made themselves at home in one manager’s community in Lee County and the members of this ROC were struggling with how best to deal with these feathered interlopers.  I did some internet research when I returned to the office and found that Lee County has a web page devoted to Muscovies.   I would not be surprised if at least a few other counties in our state have similar websites.
  • Ducks are one thing–but the black bear that was captured in the other manager’s community in East Naples was quite another.  It’s worth following this link to read the news article (which has a picture of the bear).   The story doesn’t end with the bear’s removal from the community.   The manager told us that, even though the bear was relocated to a state park, it made its way back to his community.  The bear was last seen in this ROC in late July and has obviously caused more than a bit of unwelcome excitement for this manager and the homeowners.

As if managers and board members needed any more reasons to tell homeowners and their guests:  "Please, don’t feed the animals!"

Let’s hope that wild beasts and hurricanes stay far away from our ROCs this year!

 

 

 

My most recent entry summarized the some of the changes made by House Bill 1195 (which became effective on July 1 of this year) to several provisions of the laws governing cooperative associations in Florida.

House Bill 1195 created three new subsections to Florida Statute Section 719.303 that have the effect of extending to cooperative associations the same enforcement tools that have been given to condominium associations and mandatory homeowners associations in our state.

New Florida Statute Section 719.303(4) allows the association to suspend the right of a unit owner or that owner’s occupant, licensee, or invitee to use common elements, common facilities, or any other association property until a monetary obligation is paid in full, subject to the following conditions:

  • The unit owner must be more than 90 days delinquent in paying that monetary obligation
  • The right to use limited common elements intended to be used only by that unit, common elements needed to access that unit, utility services provided to the unit, parking spaces, or elevators cannot be suspended under F.S. Section 719.303(4)

Cooperative associations are given the right to suspend the voting rights of a unit or member under  Florida Statute Section 719.303(5).   This new subsection provides that:

  • The suspension is based on nonpayment of any monetary obligation due to the association which is more than 90 days delinquent
  • A voting interest or consent right which has been suspended may not be counted towards the total number of voting interests for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the number of voting interests needed to establish a quorum, the number of voting interests required to conduct an election, or the number of voting interests needed to approve an action under Chapter 719 or the association’s governing documents
  • The suspension ends upon payment in full of all obligations currently due or overdue to the association

The suspensions imposed under these to new subsections are not subject to the notice and hearing requirements of F.S. Section 719.303(3).  Instead, the following requirements are provided in new Florida Statute Section 719.303(6):

  • The suspensions must be approved by the association’s board of directors at a properly noticed board meeting
  • Upon approval, the association must notify the unit owner, and, if applicable, the unit’s occupant, licensee, or invitee of the suspension by mail or hand delivery.

It will be interesting to see whether these new provisions encourage unit owners to pay amounts owed to cooperative associations.  I’ll look forward to hearing from my blog followers that are members of cooperatives about this in the coming months.