Florida Statute states:
120.565 Declaratory statement by agencies.—
(1) Any substantially affected person may seek a declaratory statement regarding an agency’s opinion as to the applicability of a statutory provision, or of any rule or order of the agency, as it applies to the petitioner’s particular set of circumstances.
A man by the name of James Hanseman recently sought a declaratory statement from The Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Condominiums, Timeshares, and Mobile Homes regarding whether e-mail communications between and among board members are “official records”within the meaning of Florida Statute 718.111(12), where such records relate to the Association’s operations but are sent to and/or from personal computers and devices rather than Association owned computers and devices.
Those of who have taken my Board Certification Class know that the answer to this question is that as long as the e-mails were on the private e-mail accounts of the Board members, they are not “official records” and therefore the unit owners cannot obtain copies of them. Well….that was all changed in one full swoop.
In this declaratory statement, Chevonne Christian the Division Director opined that:
The .. official records of the association” include .. all other written records of the association not specifically included in the foregoing which are related to the operation of the association.”§ 718.111 (12)(a) l8., Fla. Stat. Nothing in this provision exempts such records when created or transmitted with a board member-owned device rather than an Association owned device.
The plain meaning of the statute is always the starting point in statutory interpretation.”
GTC, Inc. v. Edgar, 961 So. 2d 781, 785 (Fla. 2007). Dictionaries can be used to determine
the meaning of words. Metro. Dade County v. Milton, 707 So. 2d 913, 915 (Fla. 3d DCA
Emails constitute a form of writing. Writing, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).
Consequently, emails are “written records,” and their existence as such does not depend on
the ownership of the device through which the emails are transmitted.
Accordingly, emails that otherwise constitute “official records” are not excluded from the
statutory definition of “official records” merely because they are created or transmitted with
board members’ personal devices.
Wow! If e-mails constitute a form of writing, no doubt text messages also constitute a form of writing. So how is this going to work? Let’s say a unit owner makes a records request for e-mails between board members during the month of February, 2022. Do all of the Board members now have an obligation to look through their e-mails and texts for the past month, print them out and hand them in to the association? Suppose each director simply says that we don’t communicate by e-mail or texts, even though they do? What remedy does the unit owner have?
While the decision is debatable as to whether or not these e-mails are “official records” it is undeniable, that it is simply unenforceable. It will be interesting to see the first arbitration case that relies on this declaratory statement. It will be even more interesting if that arbitration case gets appealed and we ultimately get a decision of the courts. Will a director ever be required to physically turn over their phone or computer by a court? Who knows? But I think we will either have a legislative fix or a court opinion within a year. In the interim, keep in mind that before you hit the SEND button on an e-mail, think about the fact that said e-mail may one day be seen by everyone in the condominium, or even a judge or jury.