Wednesday the Third District Court of Appeals narrowed two significant defenses to enforcement actions, selective enforcement and waiver/estoppel in Laguna Tropical, a Condominium Association, Inc. v. Barnave, Case No. 3D16–1531 (Fla. 3d DCA, January 25, 2017).
At issue was the enforcement of two restrictions. The declaration of condominium prohibited:
A unit owner from altering, modifying or replacing the interior of a unit without the prior consent of the Association’s Board of Directors.
Another provision specifically applicable to flooring captioned “noise” stated:
Unless expressly permitted in writing by the Association, no floor covering shall be installed in the units other than any carpeting or other floor covering installed by the Developer. In any event, each unit owner shall have the duty of causing there to be placed underneath such floor covering, so as to be beneath such floor covering and the concrete slab, generally accepted and approved materials for diminution of noise and sound, so that the flooring shall be adequately soundproof.
(Footnote deleted.) It is unclear whether the noise rule was part of the declaration or adopted pursuant to the declaration because the Court stated that the rule was “under the recorded Declaration of Condominium.”
You know what happened next. The second story unit owner replaced her unit carpeting with laminated flooring. The following year, the decision does not provide better specificity, the resident in the unit below the now laminated floor complained about noise. After an unsuccessful arbitration filing and mediation, the Association sought injunctive “and other” relief against the owner and tenant. After a nonjury trial, the owner prevailed. The Association appealed.
There was an important threshold consideration, the burden of proof. Thus, the court commenced by holding that the unit owner bore the burden of proof for the defense of selective enforcement and the defense of waiver or estoppel. “[T]he Owner assumed of the burden of proof as to each of these issues.”
On the substantive issue, it helps to understand the condominium’s somewhat unusual design. There are 94 units: 11 were only upstairs “units;” 11 were only “downstairs” units; and the remaining 72 units first and second floor units.
This configuration was relevant to the selective enforcement defense because owners of upstairs and downstairs units who installed hard flooring upstairs would presumably not complain about their own flooring. Similarly, hard flooring installed by in a downstairs unit normally would not generate flooring complaining.
Thus, the Court focused on complaints actually made to the Association. The flooring restriction “is plainly intended to avoid noise complaints.” The Association enforced the noise rule when there was a complaint by a downstairs owner. Because there were no complaints that were not acted upon, the apparent existence of hard flooring that did not generate a complaint did not constitute no selective enforcement!
Concerning the waiver or estoppel argument, the court held that the president’s communications to the unit owner could not constitute an alteration of flooring approval. The declaration required written approval by the board of directors, not one of the officers.
The final judgment was reversed and remanded for “enforcement of the flooring restrictions as sought by the Association.”
This decision should assist association enforcement efforts. Procedurally, this reinforces that owners have to prove their defenses. Substantively, when a restriction is intended to protect neighboring owners from nuisances such as noise, it appears that if there is no complaint then the Association’s failure to enforce does not automatically create a selective enforcement defense. While it may be inviting to extend this relaxed concept to all types of restrictions not immediately enforced by the Association, it would appear that this holding may be limited to restrictions protecting others, perhaps not applying to general restrictions that impact the community such appearance restrictions. Finally, though because the owner failed to introduce the actual email communications upon which the waiver/estoppel claim was based if there is a clear approval procedure in the declaration that is not followed, an oral statement in violation of procedure cannot be reasonably relied upon by an owner.
Michael J. Gelfand
Florida Bar Board Certified Real Estate Attorney
Florida Supreme Court Certified Mediator:
Civil Circuit Court & Civil County CourtMichael J. Gelfand
Immediate Past Chair
Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section
of The Florida Bar
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Note: This article is not legal advice. Statements and comments made are not those of The Florida Bar or the RPPTL Section
© 2017 Michael J. Gelfand