Saturday, September 22, 2018
Business

Riverview family's loss in court shows how HOA lawyers pile on fees

RIVERVIEW — A family facing the loss of its home over a $150 homeowners association payment failed in a court bid to reverse the action and has been ordered to get out.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Joelle Ann Ober has upheld the sale of the Riverview home where Tina and Luis Lopez have lived 12 years and raised their two children. The home was sold to an investor at a public auction for $19,000 and a new certificate of title has been issued.

Tina Lopez shared the bad news with her 16-year-old son, Anthony, but hesitated to tell 8-year-old daughter, Jessica.

"This is the only home Jessica's ever known," Tina Lopez said. "I don't know how I'm going to tell her. We're just devastated."

The Lopezes aren't packing their bags just yet, though. They've hired Tampa attorney Ryan Torrens, whose practice specializes in homeowner association foreclosures, for a last-ditch attempt. Torrens filed an emergency request Monday to vacate the judge's decision.

The Lopez family's story, published last month in the Tampa Bay Times, drew widespread reaction from others in the same boat and from critics of those homeowners associations who use aggressive means, including foreclosure, to collect dues and fees.

In the Lopez family's case, the Rivercrest Community Association failed to record a $150 annual payment they made in 2009. They even have a canceled check showing they made the payment.

But that didn't stop thousands of dollars in late fees, lawyers costs and liens to accrue in the seven years afterward. Combined with a notification system that favors homeowners associations over homeowners, their property landed on the auction block.

"Many of the association foreclosures in this state are nothing more than a scheme for the associations to take someone's home over failure to pay very small fees and for their attorneys to hit homeowners with excessive attorney's fees," attorney Torrens said.

Tens of thousands of property owners in Florida have incurred excessive fees for delinquent homeowner association dues or deed restriction violations, he said.

"It's happening every day in this state."

Torrens blames state laws that relieve associations of responsibility for notifying homeowners when they are late with dues or face fines. The laws even allow the payments, once made, to be applied first toward attorney fees, allowing the amount owed to continue piling up.

No change in the laws to address this concern has been introduced in the legislative session that gets underway this week, but Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Stacy White said he has spoken about it with lawmakers.

"The state of Florida is the only level of government with a measure of oversight capability for citizens who have difficulties with their homeowners associations," White said.

Meantime, more people find themselves in a situation similar to the Lopez family.

Richard Amisson, who lives in Canada in the summer and Sun City Center in the winter, got a letter from the Bush Ross law firm in Tampa — the same firm that went after the Lopez family — saying he failed to make three monthly homeowner association payments of $455 each.

Amisson purchased a home in the Kings Point development in February 2015.

"I never missed a payment," he said. "I have records showing they cashed my check every month."

The letter from Bush Ross arrived Oct. 20, eight days after the firm already had placed a lien on his home for $2,670.

While the Lopez family agreed to make monthly payments to Bush Ross, Amisson refused.

"We love this place but I'm stubborn and I won't be blackmailed. This is nothing more than legal extortion, racketeering."

Steve Menendez, a resident of Tampa Villas South in South Tampa, also refuses to pay Bush Ross for a debt he says he never incurred.

"We always paid our association dues of $179 but there were two months when we got behind and paid late," said Menendez, who is disabled and lives on a fixed income. Instead of applying the late payments to Menendez's annual dues, Bush Ross used them to cover interest and its own fees.

Now, Menendez is facing foreclosure and will argue his case in mediation this week.

"These people have no conscience," he said.

Law firms like Bush Ross represent homeowners associations without taking payment from them directly, collecting instead from the dues and fines they win. Attorney Torrens said this violates the intent of state laws, which only allow collection of attorney fees by the associations themselves.

Bush Ross attorney Charles Glausier said last week the firm does not comment on pending litigation except through court filings.

In a previous interview, though, Glausier said all actions taken by his office — involving contracts with hundreds of homeowners associations — require association approval under state law.

"No attorney can take action without the client's instructions," he said. "We follow the direction of the board of directors."

Amisson said that wasn't his experience.

"We sent proof of payments and got a letter back saying all the missing money had been found," Amisson said. "We reported this to the association president and that was the end of it, although we did have to pay lawyer fees and a penalty to our association. For what I do not know."

Still, Bush Ross has not taken the lien off his home.

"Once it starts, you can't call them off," Amisson said.

Contact D'Ann Lawrence White at [email protected]

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