Tampa Bay Times: “Riverview family gets to keep home in settlement with Homeowners Association”

Original article: http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/realestate/riverview-family-gets-to-keep-home-in-settlement-with-association/2326645

A June 11 story in the Tampa Tribune section about the settlement of a legal dispute between Rivercrest Community Association Inc. and the owners of a Rivercrest home contained several errors. Here is the correct information:

• The homeowners, Luis Lopez and Tina Leonelli Lopez, were among the parties who announced the settlement in a news release.

• A lien on the Lopezes’ Rivercrest home was placed by the law firm of Cameron & Santiago PLLC in 2009. A different law firm was named in the story.

• Bush Ross, the law firm that represented Rivercrest in the dispute, did not sell the house. The house was put up for auction by Rivercrest with a judge’s permission.

• The terms of the legal settlement were available to the public. The settlement did not include an 18-month payback period.

RIVERVIEW — A Riverview family is breathing easier this week following negotiations with their homeowners association that will allow them to keep their home.

In a joint news release, the Rivercrest Community Association and Rivercrest homeowners Luis and Tina Leonelli Lopez announced a settlement stemming from a disputed $150 annual association fee.

Though the Lopezes said a canceled check showed they had paid the fee, a lien was put on their $270,000 home, which was auctioned last year with a judge’s permission for $19,000.

The parties entered mediation this year. Both agreed to ask the court to set aside the sale. In return, the couple agreed to pay $3,500 by June 16.

State law allows homeowners associations to tack on late fees, attorney’s fees and related collection costs to unpaid association fees and fines. If the homeowner fails to pay the fee, a lien can be placed on the property, allowing it to be disposed of at a public auction.

As part of the settlement, the Lopezes acknowledged that they “failed to submit their annual dues payments after they were due, later submitted partial payments and never submitted any payment for the penalties or court costs and attorneys’ fees incurred by the association due to the continuing delinquency.”

Additionally, they promised not to discuss the settlement with news organizations.

Other homeowners continue to risk losing their homes for failing to pay disputed association fees and fines.

Last year, a lien was placed on the Sun City Center home of Richard Amisson even though his homeowners association acknowledged it had made an accounting error and that Amisson was up to date on his association payments.

To avoid losing his home, Amisson subsequently agreed to an undisclosed settlement.

Tampa attorney Ryan Torrens, who represented the Lopezes, said most homeowners eventually agree to pay something rather than risk losing their homes.

Since accepting the Lopez case, Torrens said he has received a number of calls from homeowners facing similar situations.

“We’re getting quite a few cases,” said Torrens, who specialized in consumer law and recently announced he’s running for Florida attorney general.

“A few have contested the fees and we’ve gone to litigation on their behalf. But we’ve been able to resolve most of the cases through mediation.”

In those cases, Torrens said, he recommended settling for a reduced payment knowing the homeowners don’t have the financial resources for a lengthy court battle.

“The HOA may be asking for $750 that the homeowner says he doesn’t owe,” Torrens said. “But it ends up becoming more expensive for the consumer to pay a lawyer to defend him than to just settle.”

Torrens believes the best remedy is to amend the state statute, Chapter 720, governing the 13,000 homeowners associations in Florida.

“It’s going to require legislative changes to get homeowners the release they need,” he said.

Torrens favors mandatory mediation before legal action is taken against a homeowner. This past legislative session, a reform bill proposed by Rep. Charlie Stone, R-Ocala, never made it out of committee.