May 14, 2015
When I was in grade school, one of the most discussed films was The Terminator (1984). Long before he became the “governator” of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as a cyborg from 2029. A world-dominating cloud computing program sent the Terminator to assassinate the future mother of the leader destined to save humanity. Growing up in a family with four kids, my parents didn’t take us to the theater too often, especially ones like that. I initially learned about the Terminator through oral accounts from my classmates. In 2015, we are now about halfway to the date of the fictional dystopia that this monster came from. Luckily, we don’t have to deal with time-traveling robotic assassins yet. While this movie was science fiction, it was popular because it triggers fight-or-flight emotional responses from its audience.
In the world of condominiums, the threat of ownership termination creates fear, hardship and uncertainty. It is the job of owner’s counsel not to defeat robots but to provide counseling and advocacy to protect hard-earned property rights.
What is condominium termination? One of the unique features of condominium law is that under the law of many states, including Virginia, a super-majority of unit owners have the right to sell all of the units and common areas to an investor without the consent of the dissenting owners and directors. Condominium owners share walls, floors, ceilings, roofs, structural elements, and foundations with their neighbors, and these things can all fall apart. It makes sense to have a legal mechanism to address dire situations where the entire condominium can be liquidated so owners can cut their losses.
These legal procedures typically start with a super-majority, usually it is around 80%, adopting a formal plan of termination. Usually the Board of Directors of the association becomes the trustee of all of the property in termination. The Board hires appraisers to determine the fair market value of the individual units. The trustee enters into a contract with a purchaser for all of the real estate. The mortgage lenders, attorneys, settlement agents, appraisers, unit owners, etc. are all paid out of the proceeds of the sale to the investor. The termination provisions of the Condominium Act and the governing documents of the association provide framework for the process. On paper, the concept of condominium termination sounds like a reasonable accommodation for a super-majority consensus to address an extreme situation.
Unfortunately, now investors use the condominium termination statutes in ways that were probably not anticipated by the legislatures. Prior to the collapse of the real estate market in 2008, investors and developers converted many apartment buildings and hotels to condominiums. When the condominium market deteriorated, many associations found themselves with one investor owning a large number of units. The “bulk owner” controlled the association through its super-majority votes in owners meetings and on the board of directors. Certainly a less than ideal situation, especially for owner-occupants.
The bulk owners discovered the condominium termination statute. With their super majority votes, they had a legal theory upon which to sell all the units, including those of the minority owners to an investor, usually a business affiliate of the same bulk owner. Because the bulk owner controls the board of directors, they influence which appraisers calculate the respective values of the units. They also control the total purchase price where the bulk owner is, practically speaking, selling everything to itself.
The potential for self-dealing and abuse of property rights is obvious. The bulk owner naturally wants the unit appraisals and the overall purchase price to be low, to make the transaction more profitable. The governance of the association provides no real checks and balances or oversight because of the super-majority interest. Many associations use the flow of documents and financial information strategically. In adversarial situations, it is common to make only the legally-minimum amount of disclosures. In terminations, individual owners are left wondering what is happening, why and what rights they have, if any.
In The Terminator film, the bodyguard for the human target of the robot explains to her: “Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.” Unassisted by counsel, condo unit owners have a frustrating time trying to communicate with the other side in termination proceedings.
According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, since 2007 there have been 279 condominium terminations in the Sunshine State alone. See May 4, 2015, Palm Beach Post, “Condo Owners Win Protections, but Do They Go Too Far?” Faced with public outcry over loss of their homes or retirement income at grossly inadequate compensation, the Florida legislature recently passed HB643 to reform the condominium termination statute. While I am not a Florida attorney, I have a few observations:
- The bill continues to allow termination of the condominium without a court proceeding. I would support legislation that would forbid non-judicial condominium terminations without direct court supervision, unless 100% of the owners sign off.
- Owners get an option to lease “their” unit after termination. In certain circumstances, they may qualify for relocation expenses. For an owner suffering a financial hardship through loss of their home or rental property, for some this may seem to add insult to injury.
- Qualifying owners may receive their original purchase price as compensation. This may not help everyone, because buyers normally seek the lowest purchase price. Owners don’t buy condos high in anticipation of a termination. See April 27, 2015 South Florida Business Journal, “Florida Bill Could Make it Tougher for Developers to Terminate Condo Associations.”
- The reform provides special protections for mortgage lenders designed to avoid situations where the borrower would be left with a deficiency on the loan. This doesn’t help owners who maintained responsible loan to value ratios.
- The bill strictly limits the ability of homeowners to contest the validity of the termination and the adequacy of the compensation. For example, the owner must petition for arbitration within 90 days of the termination. This is dramatically shorter than most limitation periods for legal claims. The new statute also limits the issues upon which the owner may contest the termination to the apportionment of the proceeds, the satisfaction of liens and the voting.
This statute revision provides additional detail about the respective rights of bulk and individual owners in condominium terminations. Unfortunately for the individual investors, it continues leaving the procedures (largely) self-regulated by the bulk investors and their advisors. The termination provisions in each state are different. Other state condominium acts may not address bulk ownership like Florida. Virginia’s hasn’t been revised since the 1990’s.
In order to terminate a marriage, corporation or other legal entity in a situation where the parties are deadlocked, usually the party seeking termination must file a lawsuit. If there is more than one owner on a deed to real estate, absent an agreement to the contrary, a suit must be filed before the parcel can be sold or sub-divided. Condominium terminations remain one of the few circumstances where super-majority owners have a procedure to self-deal in the property rights of minority stakeholders with little oversight.
If you own an interest in a condominium unit and received a notice indicating that another owner has proposed termination to the association, contact a qualified attorney immediately to obtain assistance to protect your rights. The application of state law and governing documents to the facts and circumstances are unique in each case.
I’ll be back (to this blog)!
photo credit: Richmond Skyline from 21st and East Franklin at Dusk via photopin (license)