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Are E-Mails Official Records?

Whether you live in a condominium, cooperative or homeowner association, the Statue governing your community defines the term “official records”. In defining official records, each Statue has a catch-all provision.

All other written records of the association not specifically included in the foregoing which are related to the operation of the Association.

Sections 718.111(12), 719.104(2), and 720.303(4), Florida Statues.

Questions abound as to whether e-mails are official records. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation (“Division”) has ruled that e-mails to an association can be considered official records and are therefore subject to inspection and copying by owners or their representatives. The question is, what are e-mails “to an association?” Are personal e-mails between board members official records? What about an owner’s e-mail to a board member’s email address and the board member’s response to that owner – is that considered an official record subject to another owner’s inspection and copying?

Division rulings have held that e-mails to an individual director or to all directors as a group, addressed only to their personal computers are not written communication to the association and therefore not considered an official record. This is because there is no obligation for a director to turn a personal computer with any regularity, or to open and read e-mails before deleted them. Irzarry v. Laguna Point Condominium Association, Inc., Arbitration case No. 08-05-2791 (April 10, 2009/Final Order). This point was further clarified in the arbitration case of Humphrey v. Carriage Park Condominium Association, Inc., Case NO. 08-04-0230 (March 30, 2009/Final Order/Campbell), where the arbitrator stated that “any e-mails received by, stored upon, or otherwise contained upon or within the personal computer devises (e.g., computers, laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc.) of Directors shall be considered the personal property of the Director upon whose devise said e-mail exists.” I other words, the e-mail does not belong to the association.

However, arbitrator in Humphrey went on to state “[t]he conclusion may be different if the association owns a computer on which management conducts business including e-mails (analogous to government public records); or if e-mails are printed up and passed around for discussion at a board meeting.” In other words, e-mails to an association’s e-mail address, the (“@codename.com”) are considered official records.

It is important to have a clear understanding of and a policy in place related to e-mail to assure that those e-mails that are official records are properly kept and those e-mails that are not official records are properly deleted. There are also exceptions for things such as communications that relate to litigation, which must be considered when creating and implementing an e-mail policy. It is therefore strongly recommended that all associations involve their attorney when formulating their e-mail retention policy.

 

Steven H. Mezer

Board Certified Condominium and Planned Development Law Attorney, Becker
Tampa
 | bio

 

Estoppel Certificates

A Requirement of Condominiums, Cooperatives, and Homeowner Associations

Some associations are not complying with the new laws on Estoppel Certificates which is required of condominiums, cooperatives, and homeowners associations. Prior to July 1, 2017, the association only had to provide the prospective purchaser with information about the monies owed to the association attributable to the unit being purchased. Now, the association must provide a certificate with a considerable amount of additional information as described below. If the information is prepared incorrectly the association may be estopped (barred or precluded) from alter going back to that individual for the funds or violations that were omitted from the certificate. My recommendation is that the association have their attorney prepare the initial certificate and provide that certificate to their manager or management company as some of the information requires a review and analysis of the association’s governing documents.

There is a long list of information which is required to be in the estoppel certificate found in Sections 718.116 (Condo), 719.108 (coop), 720.30851 (HOA), Florida Statues which includes (by way of example only and not as a complete list):

  • parking or space number, as reflected in the books and records of the association;
  • attorney’s name and contact information if the account is delinquent and has been turned over to an attorney for collection;
  • an itemized list of all assessments, special assessments, and other monies owed;
  • an itemized list of any additional assessments, special assessments, and other monies that are scheduled to become due for each day after the date of issuance for the effective period of the estoppel certificate is provided.

The statue then requires you to provide:

  • whether there are any open violations of rules or regulations noticed to the unit owner in the association official records;
  • whether the rules and regulations of the association applicable to the unit require approval by the board of directors of the association for the transfer of the unit and if so, whether the board has approved the transfer of the unit;
  • whether there is a right of first refusal provided to the members or the association, and if there is if the members of the association have exercised that right of first refusal; In addition, the association is also required to provide a list of, and contact information for, all other associations of which the unit is a member, provide contact information for all insurance policies maintained by the association, and provide the signature of an officer or authorized agent of the association.

For some associations, your manager has handled this certificate when it was just a matter of filling in the amounts owed, because they took care of the accounting for the association. However, reviewing and analyzing association documents to correctly answer the questions on rights of first refusal and other legal issues should be handled by your association attorney and then provided to management for future use thereafter. Further, if the management contract does not provide for charging for estoppel certificates, the Board will need to approve a resolution in order to do so.

 

Steven H. Mezer

Board Certified Condominium and Planned Development Law Attorney, Becker
Tampa
 | bio

 

Communication With Your Attorney

Most attorneys are adept and accustomed to using a variety of forms of communication with their clients. Most attorneys will also charge for communications with their clients, so clients should consider what is best, not only in the context of cost, but also what is best for providing and receiving legal advice. As an attorney representing community associations, one of the most satisfying aspects of that practice is being able to efficiently answer questions and providing legal guidance to my clients. However, I know that certain methods of communication work better for some clients. If you prefer communication by mail, e-mail, facetime, text, or in person, make your preference known to your attorney.

If you are a community association manager, I can offer you the following seven (7) observations to assist in effective communication with counsel:

  1. Designated Point of Contact. The Association should designate one person to communicate with the attorney, while providing copies of that communication to all board members in a confidential setting. If we assume that the typical board of directors has five members, the association does not want to pay for five separate communications with the attorney regarding the same subject matter, plus a communication between the community association manager and the attorney. The attorney does not need to receive six almost identical communications regarding the same issue. The community association manager typically has good communication skills and can succinctly state the legal issue and related questions, therefore, he or she is often the best choice for both the association and the attorney. Sometimes, one or more board members wants to assume this role. The association is the client, therefore, this is their choice to make.
  2. Ask Specific Questions. The attorney’s response and legal advice are responsive to the question presented. Therefore, a full statement of the relevant facts and a clear statement of the question will provide the most valuable and legally accurate response to the association’s question. Providing an incomplete (intentionally or unintentionally) or inaccurate set of facts may result in the attorney providing an incorrect or even useless response answer to the association’s actual question. This is not the time for secrets, selective omissions or hiding facts from your attorney. Even small details may have legal significance to your issue and to your attorney. Most attorneys will respond to the question as presented and will not make an assumption that the association actually had a different question to be answered. Asking the correct question should yield the most accurate answer, not just the answer that was wanted. Therefore, the statement of the facts and the composition of the question should be given the appropriate attention to detail.
  3. Confidentiality. Communications with counsel regarding legal issues are confidential and privileged. Directors should be reminded of that fact on a regular basis. Many attorneys will mark all such communications “Attorney/Client Confidential” and you should do the same. Attorney/client confidentiality may be waived by sharing copies of the communications with any person who is not on the board of directors, therefore extreme caution is required when handling communications with counsel. Please do not share legal opinions with other managers or board members from another community, unless the original recipient gave you written consent to do so.
  4. Official Records. Communications with counsel should be segregated in a file clearly marked “Attorney/Client Confidential” to avoid the inadvertent disclosure of confidential communications. These documents containing legal advice of counsel or attorney’s work product are not available for inspection and copying by unit/lot owners.
  5. Costs. While we recognize that no one likes to pay attorney’s fees, a short consultation with counsel can often save the association significant funds when the association implements the contemplated action. For example, having contracts reviewed by counsel is a highly recommended defensive action by a board of directors. It is much easier to decide to not enter into a contract due to legally objectionable terms than it is to get the Association out of that same contract after it has been entered into without the advice of counsel. It is usually much less expensive to add legally desirable language to a contract than to later face the consequences of the omission. The adage that “contracts are made to be broken” is neither factually nor legally correct. A court will not save your association from a bad contract, if it is an otherwise lawful contract. Contracts are easily created by conduct, even in the absence of a signature.
  6. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Your attorney is not a mind reader. It is impossible for anyone to interpret silence. Regular, clear and accurate communication with your attorney can provide you with support and assurance that the board of directors and that the association are operating in compliance with its governing documents and in compliance with Florida law. While it is clear that some legal fees may be a cost of the association “doing business” it is also a form of insurance that is often far less expensive than not communicating with your counsel. Addressing issues and decisions in real time is far less expensive than the litigation that can result from a wrong decision. Communicate early and often.
  7. Document the Response. It is basic that a community association should not rely on the manager for legal advice, but that is what often occurs when the manager is asked to relay or interpret a conversation that she or he has had with association counsel. Request a written response, whether it is a confirming e-mail or a formal written legal opinion each time that you seek legal advice. If you want citations to a statute to cases and references to the governing documents, specify your expectations so that there is no question as to the adequacy of the response. Although most legal advice is not a simple “yes” or “no” it need not be a confusing treatise. There are times when you should not get the response in writing, but there should be a reason for not putting the response in writing when that occurs. You have a right to clear understandable response from the attorney.

Finally, communication increases confidence and comfort. There is no (legal) question that should not be asked, if it is a question that you or a member of the board of directors may have. Keep the lines of communication open with your attorney.

 

Steven H. Mezer

Board Certified Condominium and Planned Development Law Attorney, Becker
Tampa
 | bio

 

Can Homeowners’ Association Board Restrict Fences?

Can Homeowners’ Association Board Restrict Fences?

 

Q

My homeowners’ association board of directors sent out a new set of guidelines that they intend to adopt. There are a number of provisions that limit what an owner may do with their private property. For example, it states that while fences are permitted, they may only be privacy fences constructed of particular materials, and chain-link fences are prohibited. Also, there is a list of authorized colors that owners can paint their houses. While I understand that the homeowners’ association is there to protect every owner’s property value, these rules seem to be over the top. Can the association tell me what type of fence I can put up or what color I can paint my house? (R.D. via e-mail)

A

Maybe. The first issue to always consider is what the community’s governing documents say concerning the board of director’s authority to adopt such restrictions. Declarations of covenants routinely contain requirements that alterations that are visible from the exterior of the lot be approved by either the board of directors or an architectural review committee. Some declarations also contain specific requirements or prohibitions concerning alterations, such as regulations of or prohibitions against fences. Some are more general.

If the declaration grants the board of directors or the architectural review committee the authority to approve certain exterior alterations, but do not specifically identify what types of alterations would be approved, or what types of materials may be used, the association must have some kind of objective guidelines in order to be able to uniformly apply the restriction. Section 720.3035 of the Florida Homeowners’ Association Act also discusses required guidelines concerning the location, size, type, or appearance of alterations which are to be approved by the association.

Assuming the board has the appropriate authority in the governing documents to adopt architectural guidelines or other rules affecting the use of the parcel, and further assuming the guidelines are properly adopted, such guidelines would generally be enforceable. Typically, 14 days’ notice must be given to each parcel owner prior to the board’s adoption. Specifying colors that an owner may paint their home, or the type of material they may use for installing a fence are relatively common.


 

Q

I live in a condominium and have an interest in running in the next election to be on the board. What is the requirement to obtain “certification” required by the state? (V.R. via e-mail)

A

The Florida Condominium Act states that within 90 days after being elected or appointed to the board, each newly elected or appointed director shall certify in writing to the secretary of the association that he or she has read the association’s declaration of condominium, articles of incorporation, bylaws, and policies.  The written certification must also confirm that the new director will work to uphold such documents and policies to the best of his or her ability; and that he or she will faithfully discharge his or her fiduciary responsibility to the association’s members.

Alternatively, the newly elected or appointed director may submit a certification of satisfactory completion of a board certification course administered by an education provider approved by the Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares, and Mobile Homes of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation that has been taken within one year before, or 90 days after, being elected or appointed.  The written certification or the educational certificate is valid for as long as the board member continuously serves on the board.  The association must maintain the certificates for five years after a director’s election or for the duration of the director’s uninterrupted tenure on the board, whichever is longer.

If a director fails to timely file the written certification or educational certificate, the director is suspended from service on the board until he or she complies. The board may temporarily fill the vacancy during the period of suspension.

Both the Florida Cooperative Act and the Florida Homeowners’ Association Act contain similar director certification requirements.

 

Joseph E. Adams

Office Managing Shareholder, Becker
Fort Myers | bio

 

HOA Rules to be Recorded

Do My HOA’s Rules Have to be Recorded?

For many years, homeowners’ associations (HOA) were only required to record their rules and regulations if their governing documents required that they be recorded. As of July 1, 2018, that is no longer the case.

Section 720.306 was amended by the Legislature to address the manner in which amendments are carried. The amendment adopts much of the same procedure of underlining and strikethroughs used in condominium covenant amendments. If the amendment is extensive such that underlining and strikethroughs would lead to confusion then the amendment must include the following notation “Substantial rewording. See governing documents for current text.” and underlining and strikethroughs are not needed. §720.306(1)(e), Fla. Stats.

You may however wonder what this requirement has to do with an HOA’s rules and regulations. The change to Section 720.306(1)(e) requires the use of underlining and strikethroughs (with the exception noted above) and recording for all amendments to the “governing documents.” A term defined by Section 720.301(8) to include the declaration, articles of incorporation, bylaws and the Association’s “rules and regulations adopted under the authority of the recorded declaration, articles of incorporation, or bylaws and all adopted amendments thereto.” §720.301(8)(c), Fla. Stats. (emphasis added). This means that in order for rules to be amended in the HOA setting, they must be typed a certain way and the amendment itself will not take effect until “recorded in the public records of the county in which the community is located.” §720.306(1)(e), Fla. Stats.

 

Marilyn Perez-Martinez

Attorney at Law, Becker
Miami | bio

 

Can My Association Board Pass a Rule Regarding That?

Can My Association Board Pass a Rule Regarding That?

You attend your association’s monthly board of directors meeting because you notice an item on the agenda that piques your interest. The board of directors is scheduled to consider and pass a rule regarding _________ (you fill in the blank).  You ask yourself “Can they do that?”  The answer, as it is many times, is “it depends”.

The first place to look is the association’s governing documents.  The governing documents (declaration, articles of incorporation or bylaws) must give the board of directors the authority to promulgate rules and regulations.  If this authority is not contained anywhere in the association’s governing documents, then the board does not have the authority to promulgate or amend rules and regulations.

If the authority does exist in the governing documents, then the board has the authority to promulgate reasonable rules and regulations.  Again, you must look to the governing documents to see if such rules must also be approved by the membership.  While not common, some association documents do require membership approval, so be sure to check your documents for such a requirement.

Assuming that the board can pass reasonable rules without membership approval, how does that work?  There are essentially two categories of cases in which an association attempts to enforce rules of restrictive uses. The first category is dealing with the validity of restrictions found in the declaration. The second category involves the validity of rules promulgated by the board of directors.

Restrictions found in a declaration are clothed with a very strong presumption of validity which arises from the fact that each individual unit owner purchases his unit knowing of and accepting the restrictions to be imposed. White Egret Condominium, Inc. v. Franklin, 379 So.2d 346 (Fla. 1979).   As such, a use restriction in a declaration may have a certain degree of unreasonableness to it, and yet withstand attack in the courts.

However, where a rule is created by the board of directors, such rule is subject to a test of reasonableness.   If a rule is reasonable, the association can adopt it, if not, it cannot.  Hidden Harbor Estates, Inc. v. Norman, 309 So.2d 179 (Fla. 4th DCA 1975). What this means is that if a rule is challenged, the association must be able to show the rule is reasonable.  The challenging owner is not required to show the rule is unreasonable; the burden is on the association to show that the rule is reasonable. 

In addition to being reasonable, there are other limitations on board enacted rules.  A board enacted rule cannot be in contradiction with any other provision of an association’s declaration, articles of incorporation or bylaws.  Any conflict between a provision in an association’s rules and regulations and an association’s declaration, articles of incorporation or bylaws will be resolved against the rule and in favor of the provision in the declaration, articles of incorporation or bylaws.

Furthermore, a rule cannot amend a provision of the declaration.  Unfortunately, many associations attempt to do just that by passing rules that, if challenged, would not be upheld by the courts as a valid rule.  For example, if your governing documents provide that owners who want to sell or lease their unit must provide a copy of the sales contract or lease to the association, and nothing more, a rule that provides sales and leases must be approved by the association would not be upheld by a court if challenged. 

Similarly, if your governing documents do not include restrictions limiting leases to no less than 3 months, or that leases must be at least one year in length, the board cannot pass a rule to that effect.  Such restrictions must be in the declaration, unless, arguably, the declaration specifically grants the board the authority to pass additional rules and regulations regarding leasing.

Also, you should be aware that there is now a difference regarding rules and regulations in what the defined term “governing documents” means in regard to a homeowners association as opposed to a condominium association.  Chapter 720, Florida Statutes (the “Homeowners Association Act”) was amended to include an association’s rules and regulations in the definition of an association’s “governing documents”.  See Section 720.301(8), Florida Statutes.  Chapter 718, Florida Statutes, (the “Condominium Act”) does not contain a similar provision or definition.  So while the defined term “governing documents” includes rules and regulations in a homeowners association, the same defined term does not include rules and regulations in a condominium association.

Finally, whenever an association is considering amending or addition rules and regulations, it should always do so in consultation with its attorney.  The attorney should review the rule to make sure it is not in conflict with any provisions of the declaration, articles of incorporation or bylaws; make sure there are no potential housing law issues or other legal issues in regard to the proposed rule and that the proper meeting notice requirement for the board to consider and pass the rule are followed.  In condominium, homeowner and cooperative associations, written notice of any meeting at which amendments to rules regarding unit (or parcel) use will be considered must be mailed, delivered, or electronically transmitted (to those who have consented in writing to receive official association notices electronically) to owners and posted conspicuously on the property not less than 14 days before the board meeting.

 

Howard J. Perl, Esq.

Shareholder, Becker
Fort Lauderdale | bio

 

water leak

The Subrogation Situation

With increasing frequency, insurance companies that provide unit owner insurance are suing community associations to recover payments made to the unit owner that are related to water leaks in the unit. The problem with these lawsuits is two-fold. First, the insurance companies are waiting years to bring them, although still within the statute of limitations for the lawsuit, but nonetheless to the detriment of the community association’s defense of the case as records and memories fade overtime. Secondly, the cases are many times brought in small claims court as a result of the insurance company seeking at most $5,000.00 in “reimbursement” from the community association. The issue with defending a small claims court case is that the cost of defending the lawsuit can be more than the amount the insurance company is seeking which puts pressure on the community association to simply settle. The basis of the insurance company’s lawsuit against the community association is negligence; the insurance company claims that the association had a duty to take some action, failed to take the action and such a failure led to loss that resulted in the insurance payment to the unit owner.

What can be done to limit a community association’s exposure to such lawsuits? First, the community association should consult with its attorney to determine if an amendment to the declaration for the association should be adopted related to subrogation. Next, community associations need to promptly respond to complaints related to leaks and properly document repair work in a detailed manner so that the location and extent of work is easily understood. The documentation related to repair work should be kept for 7 years and be readily accessible. Community associations should perform routine maintenance and inspections of property that the association is required to maintain in order to identify in advance of a water leak areas of needed maintenance. Lastly, anytime there is a water leak or other casualty to unit, the association must thoroughly document, in writing, what happened to cause the leak, what was done in response to the leak and all communications between the association, the unit owner and the unit owner’s insurance company and adjuster. Such documentation should be shared with the community association’s attorney and kept in the association’s official records.

 

Marielle E. Westerman

Marielle E. Westerman

Construction Law Attorney, Becker
Tampa | bio

 

electronic voting

Does Electronic Voting For Community Associations Really Work? How Do You Implement?

Q: I heard that the law in Florida recently changed and that owners in community associations can now vote electronically. What is required to implement electronic voting in my community?  And does it really work? A.A. via e-mail

A: You heard correctly. During the 2015 Legislative Session, a new law was passed authorizing condominiums, cooperatives and homeowners associations to conduct elections and other owner votes through an internet-based online voting system. In the spring of 2016, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation adopted administrative regulations to implement the new electronic voting statutes for community associations.

The first step is for the Board to decide if they wish to offer electronic voting to their members by adopting a resolution. The resolution will establish the procedures and deadlines for owners to consent to electronic voting and, thereafter, opt out of electronic voting (if desired). Written notice of the board meeting at which the resolution will be considered must be mailed, delivered, or electronically transmitted (where an owner has consented in writing to receive official notices by e-mail) to the owners, and conspicuously posted at least fourteen (14) days before the meeting.

The next step is for the Board to select an operating software system to utilize and administer the electronic votes. The administrative regulations require the use of sophisticated operating software which will enable the electronic voting website provider to accurately tally votes and be able to defend the result. The operating software also needs to be able to preserve the secrecy of owner votes in the election of directors. There are several different vendors who offer operating software to community associations for a fee. Most of the vendors utilize a similar electronic voting format: (1) the association provides a roster of eligible voters, (2) a unique PIN number is sent to the e-mail address provided by the owner, (3) owners are asked to create a user name and password to log on to the website; and (4) the owner votes electronically.

The Board does not have the right to force owners to vote electronically. Owners have the option to decide if they wish to vote electronically. Owners who do not consent to vote electronically must still be permitted to vote the “old fashioned” way via paper. At the membership meeting the electronic votes and the paper votes are tabulated together and the voting results announced.

Electronic voting does work. Several of my association clients have successfully used electronic voting at their meetings and elections. I predict that electronic voting will become commonplace very soon. The days of shuffling through stacks of paper at association annual meetings may soon be over.

 

David G. MullerDavid G. Muller

Board Certified Condominium and Planned Development Law Attorney, Becker
Naples | bio

 

 

Material Alterations to lobby

Material Alterations

We receive numerous questions from our condominium association clients regarding proposed “material alterations” to the common elements. In general, the board is empowered with authority to maintain the common elements. However, certain changes to the common elements may be considered a “material alteration” which may require unit owner approval. Florida courts have held that a material alteration is one which “palpably or perceptively varies or changes the form, shape, elements or specifications” of the common elements “in such a manner as to appreciably effect or influence its function, use or appearance.” Sterling Village Condominium, Inc. v. Breitenbach, 251 So.2d 685 (Fla. 4th DCA 1971). In many instances the material alteration questions we receive pertain to redecorating common elements, such as a lobby area. If the change in the new décor theme of the lobby is considered a material alteration (as opposed to routine maintenance/replacement), approval of the unit owners may be required. Section 718.113(2)(a), Florida Statutes, requires 75% of the total voting interests to approve a material alteration unless the declaration provides for an alternative approval method/standard. Many condominium association declarations contain a provision which specifically establishes a unit owner approval standard for material alterations to the common elements. Other governing documents specifically carve out exceptions whereby the board of directors alone can approve certain material alterations without the need to obtain unit owner approval. For example, many governing documents will grant the board discretion to approve a material alteration if the cost of said alteration is below a specific dollar amount. This area of condominium law is complex and there are additional considerations which may impact the ultimate analysis (e.g. what if the alteration is required to comply with code, etc.), which are beyond the scope of this article.

 

David G. Muller

David G. Muller

Board Certified Condominium and Planned Development Law Attorney, Becker
Naples | bio

 

 

rental-agreement

Are HOA Owners “Grandfathered” In from New Rental Restrictions?

The Florida Condominium Act states that an amendment prohibiting unit owners from renting their units or altering the duration of the rental term or specifying or limiting the number of times unit owners are entitled to rent their units during a specified period applies only to unit owners who consent to the amendment and unit owners who acquire title to their unit after the effective date of the amendment.

There is no similar provision contained within the Florida Homeowners’ Association Act. The amendment to the condominium statute was the legislature’s reaction to a Florida Supreme Court case which held that because condominiums are a “creature of statute”, unit owners take title to units knowing that most of the legal rights under their condominium documents can be changed by amendment. Homeowners’ associations are subject to slightly different legal principles including how courts review amendments to covenants and restrictions. I am of the opinion that there are generally no “grandfathered rights” in the HOA context, but the language of individual governing documents plays a large role in the analysis of this issue. This means an HOA should always have an attorney review the governing documents for that community if rental restrictions are being considered.

David G. Muller

David G. Muller

Board Certified Condominium and Planned Development Law Attorney, Becker
Naples | bio