Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
Opinion By Jesmany Jomarrón
Published March 19, 2022
For many homeowners, living in a
homeowner association (HOA) provides a sense of community
and protection of property values. But in some cases,
homeowners find themselves at the mercy of corrupt boards of
directors who misuse homeowner funds and engage in unethical
behavior. When homeowners try to fight back, they often find
that they are unable to afford legal representation, leaving
them with few options for recourse. As a result, it is
crucial that laws are established to empower homeowners and
enable them to investigate and take action against boards of
directors who engage in corrupt practices.
This combination of
booking photos provided by Miami-Dade Corrections and
Rehabilitation shows, top from left, Marglli Gallego, Monica
Isabel Ghilardi and Yoleidis Lopez Garcia, and bottom from left,
Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Myriam Arango Rodgers. The current and
former board members of Hammocks Community Association and
associate, have been charged, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, with
stealing more than $2 million of residents' money.
The recent case of the Hammocks Community Association
highlights the severity of the problem. In this community, several board
members were arrested for stealing homeowner funds. But for years before the
arrests, homeowners tried to remove the board of directors, only to face
retaliation in the form of bogus fees, the suspension of owner rights and
meritless lawsuits. When it finally reached a judge that acted, assessments
had been raised 400%, millions of dollars had been stolen, and countless
owners had been victimized. The situation was so extreme that the entire
board was removed, and a receiver was appointed to take over immediately. We
need to act now to ensure that the catastrophic level of corruption reached
at the Hammocks is not necessary to get a court’s attention in the future.
As a senior partner at The Morgan Law Group, I represent community
associations throughout Florida. I currently represent the Advisory
Committee of the Hammocks and advise and assist them and the receiver on HOA
matters. This has given me an inside look into the struggles that homeowners
face when dealing with corrupt boards of directors in their HOAs.
One of the biggest issues that homeowners face is a lack of resources to
effectively combat a corrupt board of directors. Numerous homeowners have
sought legal counsel to investigate their board of directors, only to learn
that they cannot afford legal representation. Even worse, if a homeowner
loses the legal battle, they could face foreclosure, attorney’s fees, and
court costs. Depending on the circumstances, even Florida’s homestead
exemption may not prevent foreclosure of an HOA lien.
The current system of dealing with corrupt boards of directors is flawed. On
the one hand, homeowners cannot afford legal representation and fear
retaliation. On the other, the corrupt board uses the owners’ funds to pay
for their legal defense. Lawyers willing to fight an association for an
owner are hard to find because there is no clear path to a contingency
recovery of attorney’s fees.
The need for a change is evident. A law should be passed that empowers
homeowners to investigate boards of directors suspected of stealing
homeowner funds without fear of retaliation. If the owner prevails, all the
owner’s attorney’s fees are reimbursed. If the owner does not prevail, fees
would be awarded only if the owner’s claim was without substantial fact or
legal support. This is the same standard to award fees when accusing someone
of stealing under the civil theft statute. This would ensure that homeowners
are not penalized for trying to hold corrupt boards accountable.
Additionally, legal fees should be permitted for the significant amount of
legal work and investigation necessary to prepare and file the lawsuit,
which is especially true in the case of a recall requiring the collection of
sometimes thousands of recall ballots. Allowing legal fees for this work
plus a risk multiplier would make it more feasible for attorneys to take on
these cases on a contingency basis, which would make legal representation
more accessible for homeowners to combat corrupt boards of directors.
The system should be reformed to ensure that the tragic level of corruption
that occurred in the Hammocks never happens again. Homeowners should have
the necessary resources to investigate corrupt boards of directors without
fear of retaliation or foreclosure, and legal fees should not be prohibitive
to seeking justice. It is time for Florida to take additional action to
protect homeowners and their communities from corrupt boards of directors.