There is a great book out there called “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff.” As you can imagine, the book basically tries to convince you to take things in stride, nothing is ever as bad as it seems and sometimes learn to look the other way. This is a great way to live, but if you choose to live in a Florida condominium, co-op or HOA, it’s a must.
In the last two weeks, our firm won appeals on behalf of a condominium association and a homeowner’s association. I write about them to point out how relatively minor matters can suddenly take on a life of their own and lead the parties down a path of no return where the consequences can suddenly become dire.
In the HOA case in Orange County, before our firm was hired by the association, an association sought payment of a fine from a unit owner. The unit owner hired a lawyer to challenge the right of the association to impose the fine. The association agreed that the process was done incorrectly and completely waived the fine. The unit owner was still not content and wanted her attorney’s fees of $250.00 refunded by the association. The association took the position that under Florida law, the owner is only entitled to a refund of attorney’s fees if the owner prevailed in litigation. Since there was no litigation, the owner is not entitled to a refund of her fees.
The unit owner filed suit against the association for return of her fees. That’s where we came in. We won a Motion for Summary Judgment, with the court agreeing that since there was no prevailing party in litigation, there is no entitlement to reimbursement of the $250.00 in attorney’s fees. Moreover, the court dismissed the claims against the association’s directors in their individual capacities. The unit owner wasn’t satisfied and appealed. A three judge panel upheld the award of the lower court and granted the association the right to prevailing party attorney’s fees against the owner, for both the lower court action and the appeal. These fees total in excess of $60,000.00. Remember, the litigation was only about $250.00.
In the other case, a Broward County condominium association simply wanted the owner to paint her house one of the approved colors. How much could the paint job be? Instead of complying, the owner dug her heals in, filed for arbitration which caused the association to file suit. Our firm won the case on a Motion for Summary Judgment and the judge ordered the home re-painted. The owner filed an appeal. The appeals court affirmed the decision of the trial court and awarded fees for both the trial court level and the appeal. Fees may be awarded of approximately $100,000.00.
It would have cost these two unit owners a total of about two grand to comply with the association’s requests or demands. Instead, the associations may now be entitled to about $160,000.00.
By the way…..it can work both ways. Associations are often times on the losing end of small cases that could have been settled for next to nothing and instead wind up costing big bucks where the money could have been spent on a new paint job or elevator instead of attorney’s fees.
Again, let these type of cases be your guide and remember……Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff. If you can mediate before running off to court, that is a great first step. And…..don’t ever litigate over principal, because in the end, it’s the principal in your bank account that’s at risk.