For years the FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act) has been used as a sword by debtors and debtors attorneys as a means of exacting revenge from those creditors attorneys who failed to strictly, and I mean STRICTLY, follow every small detail of the law. It reached the point that one court called it a “cottage industry” for debtor’s attorneys.

The FDCPA was so difficult to comply with, that even the Federal Circuit Court (the 7th Circuit) in one of its opinions literally included in the opinion the language that it recommended that debt collectors (including attorneys) use in order to comply with the FDCPA.  Unfortunately, even the letter that they wrote within the opinion failed to comply with one aspect of the FDCPA illustrating how difficult compliance can be.
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Castilian Hills Homeowners Association v. Chaffins, (Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 22, 2018)

The Facts

Homeowner bought home in 2004. In 2016, the homeowner failed to pay his $147 assessment.  The homeowners association (“HOA”) assessed a $20 late fee. The homeowner still did not pay, despite the normal language in the HOA governing documents about interest, the right to lien and reasonable attorney fees. After more notices, the HOA filed a lien for $525.52 and then a complaint against the homeowner seeking the $525, plus interest and attorney fees.   The homeowner argued to the court that the HOA was “required by statute to provide notice and an opportunity to be heard” prior to filing a foreclosable lien.
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Some states have statutes that require that Associations provide a notice and opportunity to be heard to a resident before the Association can fine them for a violation of the governing documents. Even though Wisconsin does not have such a statute, providing residents a notice of the alleged violation and opportunity to give their side of the story is an important component of providing due process—which will help make your fines ultimately enforceable.
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The Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA) was enacted to protect consumers from unscrupulous debt collectors; as a shield against prohibited acts. However, it is now often used as a sword, by attorneys who are part of a “cottage industry” that simply look for even the smallest of violations and then claim thousands of dollars of attorney fees and damages in their first letter to the alleged violator.
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Holding:  The Supreme Court of Vermont held that a homeowners association, as assignee from the developer, could charge lot owners for its reasonable costs to maintain the subdivision private roads and water system, including litigation and other overhead costs.

The Facts:  A 92 lot subdivision in Vermont was developed in the 1960s. The subdivision contained private roads and a private water system that was to be maintained by the developer. Owners/Purchasers of the lots were granted the right to use the private roads and water system, and a service fee for said use was imposed.

In 1998, maintenance of the private roads, streetlights, water system, and recreational facilities was turned over from the developer to a homeowners association (the “Association”). The Association continued to charge the homeowners a service fee to maintain these parts of the subdivision per the relevant subdivision deed, which included litigation and overhead costs.

In 2009, a Homeowner Plaintiff alleged that the service fee was unreasonable and refused to continue paying.
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IMPRESSION: A recent Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling served as a stiff reminder to investor-purchasers of condominium units: request of association resale disclosure certificates should be undertaken as a matter of course (in Wisconsin this is essentially the Section 703.165(4) Wis. Stat. statement of the amount of unpaid assessments).

DETAILS: In Bridge Investments, LLC v. Lowry Ridge Townhomes Assoc., LLP, A17-1221 (Minn. Ct. App. 2018) the owner of a condo unit in the Lowry Ridge Townhomes community defaulted on association payments owing over $3,500.00 in assessments.  After foreclosure proceedings, the condo was purchased by the owner’s bank at a sheriff’s sale.  Later, the defaulting owner reacquired the condo via redemption and on the same day sold the unit to Bridge Investments (“Bridge”)—a venture capital and private equity firm.  Bridge recorded its purchase with no knowledge of Lowry Ridge’s assessment lien; which was junior to the bank’s mortgage, but not eliminated by the redemption, and remained attached to the condo when sold. By this time, the outstanding balance reached over $9,000.00 prompting Lowry Ridge to record a lien for the unpaid balance, late fees, attorney’s fees, and costs.  Lowry Ridge attempted to amicably collect its debt rather than foreclose on the unit; however, Bridge felt it was not responsible for payment since it had no notice of the preexisting lien prior to purchasing the condo.
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Harrison v. Casa de Emdeko, Incorporated, No. SCWC-15-0000744 (Haw. Apr. 26, 2018)

Holding

The Supreme Court of Hawaii held that, under the Hawaii Condominium Property Act, expenses for building components that served only particular units (residential units in this case) in a mixed-use project had to be allocated as limited common expenses to the units served, even though the declaration of the association did not assign the components as limited common elements.

The Facts

Harrison purchased two commercial condominium units out of a mixed use condominium project consisting of both residential and commercial units. The residential units were completely separate from the commercial units. Even though she only owned commercial units, Harrison was assessed expenses for elevators, lanai railings, and drains for the residential buildings. After Harrison brought suit for being improperly charged, alleging that the items were limited common elements, the association responded that Harrison never objected to the costs during her 30 years of ownership or her tenure on the association’s board of directors.
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The Condominium Statutes are written such that associations can collect their actual attorneys’ fees if they proceed in a lien enforcement action for unpaid assessments. But, as in many things law-related, there are traps for the unwary, and if your attorney is not savvy, you may miss out on collecting everything you are owed…

Facts.  In a 2017 case, a unit owner was delinquent in paying assessments and the Association hired an attorney to file a lawsuit against the owner seeking collection of the assessments.  The attorney filed suit, seeking a “breach of contract” cause of action against the owner, since he violated the portion of the condominium documents that says owners must timely pay assessments. The attorney was successful in getting a judgment in favor of the association for the unpaid assessments, but when he asked the court for an award of his attorneys’ fees, the Court’s answer was no.
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