Rembaum’s Association Roundup

Welcome to Rembaum’s Association Roundup’s 2021 legislative preview. The 2021 legislative session began on March 2 and ends April 30. Not only are all of the Bills discussed below subject to multiple changes, whether any of the Bills discussed below will become the law of the land remains to be seen.  Unless otherwise clarified, the proposed legislation discussed below applies to condominium, cooperative, and homeowners’ associations.

House Bill 7 provides for relief from liability for Covid -19 related claims. This Bill provides protection from claims for damages, injuries, or death. While community associations are not specifically named in the legislation, corporations not- for- profit are included as are for profit business entities and charitable organizations. Corporations not- for- profit include the overwhelming majority of Florida’s community associations. At the time a plaintiff files a lawsuit at the courthouse, the plaintiff must also submit an affidavit signed by a physician actively licensed in the state of Florida which attests to the physician’s belief, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the plaintiff’s Covid – 19 related damages, injury or death occurred as a result of the defendant’s acts or omissions. At this very early stage of the proceedings, admissible evidence is limited to the evidence demonstrating whether the defendant made a good faith effort to substantially comply with authoritative or controlling government issued health standards for guidance at the time the cause of action accrued. If the court determines that the defendant made such a good faith effort, then the defendant is immune from civil liability. If the court determines that the defendant did not make such a good faith effort, then the plaintiff’s case may proceed. However, absent at least gross negligence proven by clear and convincing evidence, the defendant is not liable for any act or omission relating to a Covid – 19 related claim (a very difficult burden for the plaintiff to accomplish).

Senate Bill 1638 provides for a new condominium fraud investigation pilot program to be created within the Florida Division of Condominium, Timeshares and Mobile Homes of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The pilot program’s purpose is to facilitate the Division’s investigation of condominium related to fraud and corruption and is being initially tested only in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe Counties. As a part of the legislation, the Division will be required to hire three financial investigators, five investigators with law enforcement experience and three clerical employees. For the purposes of the pilot program all monies are to be made available from the Division’s existing funds. From this writer’s point of view, the Division already needs additional funding to carry out its current duties and responsibilities. This Bill, while no doubt well intended, creates additional financial burdens on the Division with no clear funding source available.

Senate Bill 56 provides for yet another opportunity for a delinquent owner to bring their delinquent account current and avoid having to pay attorney’s fees. If the association sends out a statement of account, the association is required to provide a statement of account that designates the name of the owner, the due date and amount of each assessment, the amount paid on the account, and the balance due. In essence, this Bill adds additional financial burdens on the rest of the association’s membership who timely pay their assessments. A careful reading of this legislation suggests that while attorneys’ fees cannot be collected for sending such a letter, management companies may be able to do so because they are specifically not precluded in the legislation from doing so.

This particular legislation is somewhat surprising because everyone who lives in an association is aware that assessments are due for the overwhelmingly most part, either monthly or quarterly. As a matter of course, management companies routinely send out late notices as well. This legislation accomplishes nothing more than creating additional legislative and financial hurdles prior to the Assocation being able to proceed in collections against delinquent owners.  The only members who benefit from this legislation are the delinquent owners while it punishes those who timely pay their assessments.

Senate Bill 1998 provides for additional rights of owners pertaining to value adjustment board decisions and disputes with the Association.  Should the association initiate such a challenge, by way of this legislation, the affected association members are not necessarily considered indispensable parties to the action. This is important protection so as to protect the association from unfair dismissals of such actions when all members are not names in the litigation.  

This Bill also makes patently clear that any officer director or manager who knowingly solicits, offers to accept or except anything or service of value or kickback commits a felony of the 3rd degree which is punishable by up to five years in jail. 

To the itemized list of what comprises the “official records” of the association, this Bill adds all bank statements, cancel checks and credit card statements, all invoices transaction receipts, deposit slips or other underlying documentation that substantiate any receipt or expenditure of funds by the association. In addition, this legislation provides that all official records must be maintained in a manner and format prescribed by Division rule so that they are easily accessible for inspection. 

Presently, even if electronic records are stored on the website of the association, in the event of a member request for official records, pointing the requesting person to the records on the association’s website does not satisfy the current requirements making records available to owners. Senate Bill 1998 changes this to provide that the association may fulfill its obligations of providing access to the official records by directing the individual to the  website of the association’s so long as the records are posted on the website.

Of great concern is this next item set out in Senate Bill 1998 that will consume an inordinate amount of the manager’s (or a board member’s) time as related to each and every record request. In short, in response to a statutorily compliant written request to inspect records, the association must simultaneously provide an itemized list to the requester of all records made available for inspection and copying and provide a sworn affidavit in which the person facilitating the association’s compliance with the request attest to the veracity of the itemized list. The itemized list must also identify any of the associations records not made available. This list must be maintained by the association for seven years. The delivery by the Association of such an itemized list and affidavit creates a rebuttable presumption that the association complied with these requirements. As if it were not hard enough to find qualified board members to hold office, if this Bill passes into law, any director or member of the board or manager who knowingly, willfully, and repeatedly violates the aforementioned requirements will commit a misdemeanor of the second- degree. Repeatedly means two or more violations within a 12 month period. Moreover, any person who willfully and knowingly refuses to release or otherwise produce Association records with the intent to avoid or escape detection, arrest, trial or punishment for the commission of a crime or to assist another person with such avoidance or escape commits a felony of the 3rd degree punishable by up to five years in jail.

Senate Bill 630 primarily refers to condominium associations though, in a few instances it also references both cooperative and homeowners’ associations, too. This bill revises residential condominium unit owner insurance requirements by providing that if the condominium association’s insurance policy does not provide for rights of subrogation against the unit owner responsible for a casualty event, then the unit owner’s insurance policy MUST not contain subrogation rights against the association. There are those who believe that at present unit owners can subrogate claims against the condominium’s insurance policy   which then results in higher insurance fees to all owners. On the other hand, it can be argued that this particular piece of legislation will drive up the cost of insurance for all residential condominium unit owners because in many instances, they will not be in a position to subrogate their insurance claims against those actually responsible for having caused the damage.

The fee charged by a condominium association as related to the transfer of a unit will increase from a maximum of $100 to $150 and future increases in the fee that can be charged are now tied to the Consumer Price Index.  This may offer some relief to Associations although it would be preferred that the bill allow the Association to charge the actual cost of the background check so as to ensure the Association was not out any money to conduct the background check

In addition to making provision for electric vehicles, natural gas fuel vehicles are now included too. This Bill provides rights of owners to not only have a electric charging stations, but also natural gas charging stations. 

Other than election and recall disputes, prior to institution of court litigation a party to a dispute must either petition the Division for non-binding arbitration or initiate a new process, pre-suit mediation. Arbitration is binding on the parties only if all the parties to the arbitration agree to be bound to it, in writing.  A new mediation process will be available for parties in dispute to present the parties with an opportunity to resolve the underlying dispute in good faith and with a minimum expenditure of time and resources. The mediation proceedings must generally be conducted in accordance with the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and can be used in lieu of the otherwise required mandatory non-binding arbitration process. This new type of pre-suit condominium mediation process follows the process set out in the homeowners’ association act. Remember, however, election and recall disputes are not available for mediation as those disputes have to be arbitrated by the Division or are subject to being heard in a local court of competent jurisdiction.

As to cooperative associations, a cooperative association may not require a member to demonstrate any purpose or state any reason for an official record request. A cooperative board member or committee member participating in a meeting via telephone, real time video conferencing or similar real time electronica or video communication counts toward quorum and such member may vote as it physically present.

As to homeowners’ associations, in addition to any of the authorized means of providing notice of a board meeting, the association may, by rule, adopt a procedure for conspicuously posting the meeting notice and agenda on the association’s website or an application (meaning an “app”) that could be downloaded on a mobile device. The meeting notice is also required to be physically posted on the Association property. Any rule adopted must in addition to other matters, must include a requirement that the association send an electronic notice to the members whose email addresses are included in the association’s official records (meaning the member opted in to receive their official notices from the association via email). The homeowners’ association ballots, sign in sheets voting proxies, all other papers, and electronic records relating to voting by partial owners must be maintained for at least one year after the date of the election, vote, or meeting. In addition, the homeowners‘ association must include in it with its official records, information the association obtains in a gated community in connection with guests visits to parcel owners or any other residence in the community.

Of interest, is a change in the manner in which a homeowners’ association can create restricted reserve accounts.  The only method available will require the affirmative vote and approval of a majority of the total voting interests of the association. No longer included is the possibility that a developer could have initially created restricted reserves.

Also, as related to homeowners associations, should Senate Bill 630 become law, then any amendment to a governing document, rule or regulation which prohibits a parcel owner from renting his or her parcel,  alters the authorized duration of a rental term, or specifies or limits the number of times the partial owner may rent his or her partial during a specified period, applies only to the parcel owner who consents, individually or through a representative, to the amendment, or  a new parcel owner acquires title to the parcel after the effective date of the amendment. Notwithstanding, an association may amend its governing documents to prohibit or regulate rental durations that are for terms of less than six months and to prohibit a parcel owner from renting his or her parcel more than three times in a calendar year which amendments would apply to all parcel owners. In addition, none of the aforementioned would apply if the association has 15 or fewer parcels.

Recall actions for condominium, cooperative, and homeowner associations can be brought either to the Division of Condominium, or a court of competent jurisdiction.

As to emergency powers, as related to condominium, cooperative, and homeowners’ associations, the emergency powers are clarified to apply to a broader range of events such as the present Covid – 19 pandemic. In addition to board meetings, committee meetings, elections and membership meetings can be conducted in whole or in part by telephone, real time video conferencing or similar real time electronica or video communications. Associations can implement a disaster plan or emergency plan before, during or following the event village the state of emergency is declared. In addition to the advice of emergency management officials, now, associations can rely on advice from public health officials to determine whether the association property can be safely inhabited, accessed or occupied. In addition to taking action to mitigate further damages, the board can take action to mitigate further injury or contagion. Additional clarification is provided that during the state of emergency, the association cannot prohibit owners, their guests and agents or invitees from accessing a unit or the common elements for the purpose of ingress to an egress from the unit and when necessary in connection with the sale, lease or other transfer of title to a unit or for the health and safety of such person unless a governmental order or determination or public health directive from the centers for disease control and prevention has been issued prohibiting such access to the unit.

House Bill 21 provides that a person or party may not bring a cause of action for a material violation that exists within a completed building structure or facility which may reasonably result or has resulted in physical harm to a person or significant damage to the performance of a building or a system unless the party has submitted a claim for the alleged material violation under an applicable warranty and the warranty provider denies the claim or offers a remedy that is unsatisfactory to the person for a party within the time limit provided for in the warranty. 

Senate Bill 1966 would effectuate a change to qualifications to be a board member. Presently, if a potential candidate is delinquent in a monetary obligation, they are not qualified to be a candidate. If this bill becomes a law, then being delinquent in any monetary obligation is no longer relevant. Rather, the potential candidate would have to be delinquent in the payment of an “assessment”. In addition, in an effort to describe when an owner is actually delinquent, if payment is not made by the due date as specifically identified in the declaration of condominium bylaws or articles, then the payment is delinquent however if it due date is not specified then, the due date is the first day of the assessment period. On a different note, the condominium association’s annual budget must be proposed to the unit owners and adopted by the Board of Directors no later than 30 days before the beginning of the fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1490 is perhaps the most risky piece of legislation this entire legislative session, in this author’s sole opinion, in that it allows condominium associations, through a vote of the owners, the ability to invest the otherwise sacrosanct restricted reserve accounts with an investment advisor. While the legislation attempts to minimize risk by requiring the association to adopt a written investment policy annually, it nevertheless allows the investment advisor to invest funds not deposited into depository accounts. While the investment advisor is held to the high standard of being a “fiduciary” nevertheless the reserve monies will be at a much higher risk of loss.

Stay tuned to learn if these Bills become law.  Remember, there is a lot of time left in the legislative session to further turn these Bills into legislative sausage.

Jeffrey Rembaum’s, Esq. of Kaye, Bender, Rembaum attorneys at law, legal practice consists of representation of condominium, homeowner, commercial and mobile home park associations, as well as exclusive country club communities and the developers who build them. Mr. Rembaum is a Certified Specialist in Condominium and Planned Development Law. He is the creator of ‘Rembaum’s Association Roundup’, an e-magazine devoted to the education of community association board members, managers, developers and anyone involved with Florida’s community associations.  His column appears monthly in the Florida Community Association Journal. Every year since 2012, Mr. Rembaum has been selected to the Florida Super Lawyers list and was also named Legal Elite by Florida Trends Magazine. He can be reached at 561-241-4462.