Written By Todd Ulrich, WFTV.com – February 16, 2021
MIMS, Fla. — A Central Florida couple claimed their homeowner’s association threatened to foreclose on their house for a debt they did not owe. Cindy Decker and her husband raised six children in the home they’ve lived in for 26 years.
“They put me through hell,” Decker said. She had not paid her association’s annual dues on time. The Lake Harney Woods Property Owners Association added late fees.
Decker delivered a check for $892 to cover everything she owed.
“Did you fear losing your house?” Action 9′s Todd Ulrich asked.
“Yes, they told me all the time, ‘You have 30 days or we’re foreclosing,’” Decker replied.
One month after Decker says she paid in full, the association filed a lien against her home to collect unpaid dues and fees. It’s the first step toward foreclosure.
The motion was filed by DHN Attorneys, a new law firm the association was using. But Decker had paid the association’s previous attorney right before the switch.
She has a receipt to show the full payment was received. But according to Decker, DHN Attorneys kept insisting she owed $1,300.
Decker said she took her case to a Lake Harney HOA meeting. “I thought for sure once I showed all the evidence in front of the board with all my neighbors it would be done and over,” she said.
But she claims the HOA president blamed her for paying the wrong law firm, then refused to end the foreclosure threat.
“Did it feel like a runaway train coming right at you?” Ulrich asked.
“Oh yeah! And there was no stopping it. That’s why I had to get an attorney involved,” Decker said.
Decker hired consumer attorney Jared Lee.
“Did this HOA and its law firm cross the line?” Ulrich asked.
“It did, in a dramatic way,” Lee responded.
Lee says it’s common for some HOAs and their law firms to hit homeowners with punishing fees for late dues and he says Florida association laws offer little protection.
But this time, Lee filed a federal lawsuit claiming the HOA and its law firm violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
“Both of those statutes protect consumers from collections that had already been paid, from harassment and abuse in the collection process,” Lee said.
The association and DHN settled before trial.
Without admitting wrongdoing, both agreed to pay Decker $33,000 in damages.
Lee says that sends a message that abusive associations “need to be careful when collecting from consumers, careful to follow the law.”
The HOA did not respond to Ulrich’s questions.
DHN Attorneys told Action 9 its firm relies on information provided by others and issues arise on rare occasions. The law firm also said it took the homeowner’s claim seriously and couldn’t comment further because of the litigation.
“Now they’ve got to pay you $33,000?” Ulrich asked. “Karma, yep,” Decker replied.
Homeowners doing battle with their HOAs should document all payments, get receipts and if the dispute involves debt collection, homeowners have rights that will be honored in court.