Everyday I receive calls from homeowners with horrific stories of how they are being treated or things their association is doing which violates state law. If I didn’t have my assistant running interference I would be on the phone all day and not working, i.e., making any money to keep the firm going. Most people get upset when they find out we don’t offer free consultations or they can’t speak to me to ask “just one question.”
I would love to provide everyone with free help, but then I would be out of business before the end of the month. Free advice is not something lawyers should give out. While the person asking means well, they are only providing limited facts, which can change the answer had I known all the facts. Even worse, if someone misunderstands our advice, acts on what they think I said, and it doesn’t turn out well, they will want to sue me for malpractice.
The reality of the situation is these cases do not qualify for a contingency fee arrangement (pay only if you win) because no one was physically hurt (in most cases) and even if you win you are only entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees, which is not usually 100% of your attorneys’ fees. It’s not that our fees aren’t reasonable. Judges just do not tend to award fees for items like excessive telephone calls between the attorney and the client because the client initiates lots of calls (what the judges call “excessive hand-holding”), and travel time to and from the courthouse, just to give a few examples.
This leaves the homeowner faced with paying an attorney their hourly rate as the work is performed. Unfortunately, most homeowners cannot afford this. Even if they could, is it wise to spend upwards of $100,000 fighting over your landscaping or attorneys’ fees for past due assessments? For some I can tell you the answer is “yes!” For others I can tell you they either do not want to spend the money or cannot even afford it. The associations count on most people not being able to afford it or not wanting to risk this amount of money. Even worse yet, if the owner loses (and someone has to lose), the owner is faced with reimbursing the association its reasonable attorneys’ fees, making it less likely an owner will sue their association.
My advice, as I have stated over and over again, is to read your governing documents (Declarations, bylaws, articles of incorporation, rules and regulations) from the first page to the last page and commit them to memory so you don’t risk violating the restrictions and you know your rights. Also, read the chapter of the Florida Statutes governing your association (Chapter 718 for condominiums and Chapter 720 for homeowner associations). Finally, GO TO MEETINGS!!! If no one is watching then no one is accountable. It’s very easy for boards to take a short cut in their duties if no one cares. Then one short cut leads to more short cuts.
If all else fails, gather your evidence carefully. Submit those requests to inspect the official records and when you go to the records inspection make sure you make readable copies. Use a scanning program on your phone or tablet. Pictures are quick and easy but often distorted and useless. Go to meetings and audio or videotape them. Take photographs and videos of the community if the issue involves conditions around the community. Make sure you bring these to any attorney you hire to represent you or even if you are just paying for a consultation.