TAMPA (FOX 13) - The past few years haven’t been easy for 61-year-old Joe Mosby. He says finances became tight after he was diagnosed with leukemia. Soon after that, he lost the job he’d held for 18 years.
“For a long time, I was upside down on my house and sold most of my possessions to pay my bills,” Mosby said.
When his quarterly homeowner’s association payment was due in October 2014, it was a $75 bill he couldn’t afford.
“It wasn't malicious on my part, but I simply didn't have the money to pay them,” he explained.
Two months later, an attorney hired by the Heather Lakes HOA sent Mosby a notice that he now owed the $75, plus a few dollars in interest. Then there was a $160 charge for “attorney’s fees” charged to Mosby for the letter. The total due was now more than $250.
“There are laws for debt collection: American Express, the water company, the phone company,” he said. “These guys play by a different set of rules altogether.”
A year later, that $75 had ballooned into $1,768.51, primarily because of unspecified “attorney’s fees.”
In Florida, HOAs can send a homeowner “notice of intent” to file a lien, no matter how small the delinquency is. There’s also no threshold before HOAs can tack on “reasonable attorney fees” for collecting the unpaid dues. State law doesn’t say what’s “reasonable,” so that’s decided by a judge if a case goes to court.
Homeowners that are delinquent on HOA dues are not usually in the position to hire a lawyer, so many can end up paying whatever an attorney charges.
Former Florida lawmaker and real estate attorney Peter Dunbar says homeowners should do everything they can to pay their HOA dues by their due date. He questions the kinds of attorney fees Mosby faced after one missed payment, however.
“Taking advantage by adding extra costs, I think, is a concern,” Dunbar offered.
Mosby has a different word for it. "Where I come from, we would call that loansharking."
He didn’t realize the letter he received after missing his quarterly dues was only the start of a running meter with attorney fees. Vanguard Management Group, which has its corporate office in Tampa and oversees the Heather Lakes HOA, filed a lien on his house.
The February court filing said he owed more than $500, including $360 in attorney fees. Two weeks later, the law office hired by Vanguard sent Mosby a letter letting them know they filed a lien, and that he owed even more.
“As of the date of this letter, the total amount due with interest is $713.49,” lawyer Alicia Seward wrote in the letter, sent from the law office Martin Aequitas, which is now part of Tampa law firm Meridien Partners. The letter didn’t specify what the additional fees were for.
Mosby says he responded by paying the outstanding $150 in quarterly dues, along with a letter explaining his health and financial situation. By then, it was too late – by state statute, the $150 went to the fees and interest first, leaving hundreds of dollars still owed.
Mosby says he didn’t hear from the HOA lawyer until November.
His house was no longer upside down, and he put it on the market. A few weeks later, he had an offer and the buyer signed a contract.
The Heather Lakes HOA served him with foreclosure papers.
It’s not clear why the HOA chose to start foreclosure process when it did. There was still a lien in effect, so Mosby would have had to pay the HOA the outstanding debt when the sale closed. The foreclosure, however, meant the HOA could take the home altogether, leaving Mosby and his out-of-state buyers in a lurch.
Vanguard Property Management did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Vanguard’s lawyers, including Seward, did not want to talk about it, either. “Our official comment is we have no comment,” said Brian Chase with Meridien Partners Law.
With the clock on the closing process, Mosby says as he and the title company made continued calls to Meridien Partners to get a final amount to settle the payment. He finally received an email with an amount that had grown even more, but no explanation for the charges.
FOX 13 was there as Mosby went to make the final payment.
"This is a one-day only deal: $1,768.51 in certified funds or they foreclose on my house in two days,” he read from an email Seward sent him.
He gave Meridien Partners the certified checks. Mosby says Seward, the attorney, refused to give him an invoice, a receipt, or an indication of when the law office intended to withdraw the foreclosure.
Not wanting to risk anything, he found out how to file his own letter to the judge in the foreclosure case. The filing said he paid the amount that had been demanded from the law office. The law office withdrew the foreclosure; Mosby sold his home and moved out.
Mosby says if his friends hadn’t stepped in to pay the $1,700 the HOA demanded before the sale of the house, he would have lost his home altogether.
“It's pretty uplifting when you know who your real friends are and they're willing to help you out,” he said.
Dunbar says it’s an issue legislators are unlikely to take up during the upcoming session, but may be something lawmakers are willing to look at this year.
“This stuff wouldn't be allowed to go on if people knew about it,” Mosby said. “I truly believe that.”
Mosby plans to file a complaint with the Florida Bar.