NEW TAMPA — In January 2002, the Pebble Creek Homeowners Association dispatched a lawn crew to a couple's property to replace sod that had died during a record drought.
Then they billed the homeowners for the job.
Retired police captain Ed Simmons and his wife Billye disputed the actions of the association and refused to pay.
That sent the $2,212 bill into the center of various lawsuits between both parties that has spanned more than a decade.
On Sept. 21, the Simmonses were handed a victory after a judge agreed that the association did not follow its own governing documents and failed to properly authorize the charge and a subsequent lien it had placed on the house.
The cost to the Simmonses in pursuit of justice? More than $220,000.
"A $2,212 grass bill and I spent almost a quarter of a million dollars to defend?" Ed Simmons said. "It just doesn't sound right. This has been an absolute nightmare."
The almost 11-year case came to its lengthy and pricey conclusion when Hillsborough Circuit Judge James Barton granted the Simmonses almost $145,000 in damages. (His order contained a mathematical error and a motion was filed to adjust the amount to the correct sum of $85,000.)
Attorneys from both sides must now schedule a case management conference to determine if the couple should be reimbursed for any of their legal fees, and if so, how much. Simmons said he has spent $222,000 so far.
Historically, whenever associations lose court fights, residents have been left with the bill.
For example, in 2006, the Magnolia Trace Homeowners Association sued a resident over a painted sidewalk. The association lost the case, which lasted two years.
Homeowners in this of cluster of 88 homes, also in New Tampa, had to pay $600 each over five years to cover attorney's fees from both sides.
In his order, Judge Barton characterized the Pebble Creek case as the "Anatomy of an HOA dispute run amok."
The saga began when the Simmonses refused to pay the full amount of the job, claiming they were not only being singled out, but they were also billed for sod that was laid down on portions of land owned by the county.
That's when the HOA took the couple to court. Over the course of the next 10 years, the case trudged its ways through six judges, a jury trial and three appeals.
In this latest review, which both sides had agreed to seek without a jury, Barton found that:
- The association replaced the Simmonses' lawn when it was not the only yard affected by the drought.
- Three deed restriction committee members never inspected the property before the board authorized the work as required by governing documents.
- The person who installed the sod, Michael Meggison, was an officer and board member of the HOA. Governing documents prohibit board members from receiving remuneration without a unanimously adopted resolution, which did not happen.
- The fraudulent lien prohibited the Simmonses from selling their home, which they had purchased as investment property and rented out. At one point, when the home was valued at $215,000, they had an interested buyer. The property is now worth $100,000, according to the court order.
Ed Simmons, who continues to rent out the property, said he wants his legal fees back and he wants to sell the house.
He also hopes the end is truly near.
But will the association appeal? And will Pebble Creek homeowners be left with a massive legal bill?
Association President Dan Logan, through the property management company, referred all calls to attorney Ricky L. Thacker.
Thacker did not return phone calls for comment.