By George Gombossy
Standing on principle is an admirable trait. But it's a losing strategy when you use it as the reason to withhold payment of your condo maintenance fee or fine.
Let's just say it's like playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded revolver.
Just ask Tom Savoca of Madison, Mary of Eastern Connecticut, and Josie Harrison of Naugatuck of how it worked out for them when they stood their ground on their principle and refused to pay either their maintenance fees and/or fines because they felt they had been wronged by their boards of directors.
Tom and Mary were taken to court and would have lost thousands of dollars. They were going to be foreclosed on. Josie was going to be sued.
In each case - as well as a half dozen others -that I and Brian Harte, president of the Connecticut Condo Owners Coalition, and Gail Egan, chairwoman of the CCOC investigations committee, told the condo owners to immediately pay their fines and maintenance fees and try to settle their court cases. The CCOC provides information to condo owners and attempts to protect them from unscrupulous board members or property managers.
While none of the three of us are lawyers, the issue in this case is clear. Condo associations, just like mortgage companies, must be paid when the money is due, as is the case in most states. We are unaware of anyone who was able to defeat a condo association's legitimate court claim on this issue.
A condo owner has other avenues to protest legally without jeopardizing their homes. For instance they can file a small claims action or publicize the issue, or even try to replace the board or property manager.
All of the condo owners that contacted us said they were stunned that their board of directors filed legal actions against them for failing to pay their fees or to pay fines for violating condo rules.
They all said that they would win in court by proving that the condo board's assessments were improper or illegal. Obviously they did not read their condo bylaws very thoroughly. Nor did they check state condo laws.
Tom, who lives at the Richborough Condo Complex was convinced that the assessment the condo association charged for local taxes was twice the amount it should be. As the former treasurer of the association, he believed that the new assment was wrong, so he began a fight with the board by refusing to pay their common fee.
No problem, the board responded, and sued him demanding not only court costs, payment for its legal fees, fines and of course the actual unpaid assessments.
Tom hired a lawyer and attempted to fight a legal battle. He then came to the CCOC asking for help and our advice.
After looking into his complaint, Brian and I decided that his only course of action was to stop fighting and suggest that he settle his case.
After settlement, he can demand documents and get accounting help to determine if the association was overcharging him. He then can file a claim in small claims court, if it turns out he was right.
Mary, who lives in Eastern Connecticut, refused to pay a plumbing bill that was sent to the association after she had complained about a leak in her attic. She said she thought the condo was responsible for water pipes in the attic. She said she only learned after the association's plumber fixed the leak that she was responsible. She said if they had told her that earlier she could have had a friend fix the problem for a few dollars.
Based on that reasoning, Mary refused to pay the bill and the subsequent fines for failing to pay it. She was sued. Unfortunately the suit came at the same time she was attempting to refinance her mortgage. Needless to say we told her to pay the fines and bill as well as the association's legal and court costs and end the case. One can't refinance a mortgage with an outstanding suit against the property.
Josie has many issues in the small complex called Millville, including the order she was given to have a storm door installed. She refused to do so because she said several others in the complex did not have storm doors and she felt she was being harassed. So she was fined $5 a day for failing to install the storm door.
It took me about 30 seconds to decide to tell her to install the storm door, pay the fine and then check the condo documents to see if storm doors could be required.
Besides, we told her she would be in a better position to continue the battle when she was no longer under a legal threat.
"The CCOC wants to help all condo owners have all the rights that they should as homeowners," Brian, the CCOC president said "but we can only help when the condo owner has fully paid his or her dues."
"We can offer the most help to those who follow the old legal axim of 'One should enter the court of equity with clean hands.'"
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