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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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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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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Condominium associations generally have a number of legal remedies to pursue when an owner stops paying assessments. An Ohio court recently found that associations may collect assessments as they come due during a lien foreclosure action by and through a court-appointed receiver.

Facts.  In a 2017 case, an investor owner of a condominium unit, who had a rent-paying tenant living in the unit, failed to pay a special assessment to the association. The association filed a lien for the unpaid special assessment and started a lien foreclosure action. While the foreclosure action was in progress, the association also asked the court to appoint a receiver who would collect the rents from the tenant, as well as the current assessments as they come due. The unit owner argued that having the receiver collect assessments was a stretch of the statute, which only allowed a receiver to collect “reasonable rental” during the pendency of a foreclosure action.
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In a 2017 New York case, a dispute arose over what authority the Association had to perform landscaping maintenance on an individual homeowner’s lot (Minkin v. Board of Directors of Cortlandt Ridge Homeowners’ Association, Inc., 149 A. D.3d 723 (2017)).  When the owner refused to pay the assessment for the landscaping services, the Board started assessing fines.  The owner sued the Board.  The New York Supreme Court (the lowest level court in New York) decided that the Board did have the authority to perform the landscaping services on the front lawn and the homeowner was required pay the assessment as well as the fines.  Unfortunately for the Association, there was also a larger issue dealing with the work performed and assessed on the side and rear of the house.  The problem was that the Board and managing agent could not provide backup or evidence for exactly what work was done in each area, and accordingly, the assessments and fines were not upheld in those areas.
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A recent New York Court dealt with an issue on leasing (Olszewski v. Cannon Point Association, Inc., 148 A.D.3d 1306 (2017)).  The Board adopted rules and regulations that placed restrictions on leasing that contradicted relevant portions of the Association’s Bylaws.  The Association then fined the owner for violating these restrictions and the owner sued.  The owner won at the circuit court level and the Association appealed.  On appeal, the Court again ruled in favor of the owner, upholding the trial court’s decision.  Why?
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