Did Florida’s Supreme Court render laws governing condominium and homeowner association declarations useless and unenforceable?
Florida’s community associations across the state are becoming increasingly concerned the legislature can no longer pass laws that affect Florida’s condominium and homeowner associations after the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Cohn v. Grand. Florida’s community associations should be concerned and need to take action, but as explained below all hope is far from lost.
1. The Grand was a condo hotel.
2. When owner Cohn purchased a unit the Grand the Declaration stated “unit owners would governed by the “the Condominium Act of the State of Florida in effect as of the date of recording this Declaration.”
3. The Declaration did not include the phrase, “as amended from time to time.”
4. The dispute specifically arose as to whether the unit owners are afforded voting rights in accordance with the Condominium Act in effect at the time the Declaration was recorded or were said voting rights altered over time by each amendment made to legislation relating to condominium associations and in particular voting.
The Legal Argument:
Unit owners’ contractual rights, defined by the terms of the Florida Condominium Act (“Act”) at a fixed point in time, do not vary when changes to the Act are made because the term “as amended from time to time” was not included in the Declaration.
Florida Law Applied to the Facts and the Legal Argument:
An overriding principle embedded in the Florida Constitution is that “state action” (legislation) that impairs a contract is unconstitutional. In determining whether legislation impairs a contract a three part test is used and the results are weighed and balanced:
1) To what extent are the contractual rights impaired;
2) Does the state have a good reason for enacting policy that changes contractual rights; and
3) Are the means the state will use to achieve this policy reasonable?
The issue in Grand related to owner voting which has long been considered a substantive right. As such, the Court gave greater weight to item # 1 above and less to item # 2.
The Court’s Decision:
The Florida Supreme Court held “The Constitution prohibits the impairment of contracts; and the statute regulating mixed-use condominiums (F.S. 718.404(2)) impaired the Grand’s unit owner’s contractual rights, which are established in the Grand’s declaration.” In other words, the law at the time the Declaration was recorded, not at the present time, was the law that applies to owners’ voting rights in the Grand.
What This Means to Your Association:
The Grand decision should not be read as the end of legislative control over Florida community associations.. Surely, rules relating to enforcement of covenants would not be considered a substantive right that any legislative changes would be outweighed and nullified. Instead, each such case will be reviewed by the courts on a “case-by-case” basis, if the magic words “as amended from time to time” is not in the Declaration.
What to Do:
Check your community association’s Declaration and determine whether the drafter included the words “as amended from time to time” in relation to statutes that will be used to enforce and interpret the Declaration (Condo. Act or HOA Act.). If not, speak with your community association’s attorney and begin the process of amending your community association’s Declaration.