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debt-collection-scams*Asked and Answered

AskedWe have several members in our community that are failing to pay their monthly HOA dues and have run through several debt collection firms in an attempt to collect on these accounts. The firms we have used continuously promised us to collect the delinquency and that “the fees will be paid by the delinquent homeowner.” Well, in most of our cases, we ended up paying triple or quintuple the delinquent amount in legal fees and collection costs all to end up with nothing or a small portion of it. We have come to the point where we don’t see that “light at the end of the tunnel” and would like to know what really is the most efficient and effective way to collect delinquent assessments.

Answered – It is not uncommon to come across HOA boards that have a sour taste in their mouth left by their prior debt collection firm. This is mostly caused by firms that (1) guarantee and promise results (specifically, promises that they will get the job done and all costs will be reimbursed by the homeowner-debtor); (2) drive up their legal fees and costs; and (3) end up not being able to collect or recoup the delinquency from the debtor. This leaves the HOA to not only write off the bad debt, but to also incur costs that are exponentially higher than the original debt.

There are two (2) primary methods in which HOAs are able to collect on delinquent assessments: (a) judicially and (b) non-judicially. The former requires the involvement of the court system, consisting of a lawsuit that prays for a money judgment and/or judicial foreclosure (court ordered sale of the home). The latter is through non-judicial foreclosure (“NJF”) that does not require the court’s involvement.

Judicial Enforcement

Generally, getting the court involved increases the amount of time and money that an HOA must expend due to the added court fees, court procedures, attorney appearances, and so on and so forth. This is especially true if the homeowner decides to contest the lawsuit and file an answer, further dragging out the time and cost for resolution. Barring homeowner contest, judicial enforcement can be effective and beneficial in two (2) situations: (a) when the home is underwater (i.e., no equity), or (b) when there is senior foreclosure activity.

When the home is underwater, an HOA should not seek foreclosure because the chances of a buyer purchasing the property is slim to none, leaving the HOA to take title to the property. In this situation, a lawsuit is beneficial in that the HOA has the option to proceed with collecting on the money judgment through a variety of collection methods (e.g., bank levy, wage garnishment). This same benefit applies to the second scenario wherein the senior lender is in the process of conducting its own foreclosure sale. This is because if there is senior foreclosure activity and the HOA attempts to conduct its own sale prior to the senior’s, it is unlikely that anyone would be willing to buy the home subject to the mortgage, or even worse, to be foreclosed on by the senior.

The ability to opt to pursue a money judgment is indeed beneficial. However, boards must keep in mind that the added benefit does not come without its flaws:

  • Increased legal expenses, costs and time;
  • Subject to same NJF risks:
    1. Lack of equity;
    2. Senior foreclosure.
  • Uncollectable money judgments

Above all, should judicial enforcement fail, the HOA will not only have to write off the debt and absorb the legal fees and collection costs, but will have to do it all over again should the homeowner-debtor continue to reside at the property and fail to pay assessments. This is something that HOAs do not have to worry about when proceeding with NJF.

Non-Judicial Enforcement (i.e., NJF)

NJF is similar to judicial enforcement with the exception of two (2) crucial differences:

  • As to both judicial foreclosure and money judgment: It does not require court involvement and attorney appearances, saving the HOA a substantial amount of money and time; and
  • As to money judgment: It secures not only the delinquent amount accrued up to the date of lien recordation, but all future delinquent assessments, costs, late fees and interests accrued thereafter.

In addition to the NJF advantages listed above, NJF generally resolves the delinquent matter before it ever reaches the foreclosure sale. This is because the homeowner realizes what is at stake: his/her home and increasing collection costs, fees and interest. The California Civil Code requires HOAs to perform the following steps, among other things, prior to the foreclosure sale:

  • Pre-lien Letter: This informs the homeowner of the delinquency and risk of losing his/her home;
  • Recordation of Delinquent Assessment Lien (“Lien”);
  • Recordation & Service of Notice of Default (“NOD”); and
  • Recordation & Service of Notice of Trustee’s Sale (“NOS”).

Nine out of ten times, the delinquent homeowner will reach out and pay off the delinquency before it reaches the NOD stage, providing a resolution timetable of approximately 60 – 75 days. This is because the Lien puts a “cloud” on title of the home, preventing the homeowner from obtaining loans, refinancing his/her mortgage, and/or transferring title to the home. In the rare instances that this does not occur, the HOA can simply proceed with the sale. With a shorter turnaround time and lower legal fees and costs, NJF can be advantageous for most HOAs to utilize for assessment collection.

California HOA lawyers In most delinquent assessment matters, it is unlikely that the subject home will lack sufficient equity to recoup the HOA assessment debt, which makes NJF that much more appealing. However, as discussed, there are instances where NJF may not be a viable option. This is why it is of utmost importance that the HOA’s collection agent does its due diligence in thoroughly evaluating each account before providing a recommendation as to proceeding with judicial or non-judicial enforcement.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Andrew M. Jun, Esq.

92803020-debt-collector-red-text-round-stamp-with-zig-zag-border-and-vintage-texture-It is no secret that homeowners’ associations (“HOA”) are run and managed through the funds of monthly HOA assessments (“Fees”), and more often than not, HOA’s hire and retain debt collection firms to collect on past due Fees from delinquent members of the community. Sometimes, this leads HOA’s to lose large amounts of money in collection costs and write-offs (of “bad debt”) due to homeowner challenges under the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA” or “Act”). The FDCPA provides protection to consumers (e.g., homeowners) from abusive debt collection practices by placing a myriad of procedures and limitations of which all debt collection firms must abide by, unless said firm solely recoups debt via non-judicial foreclosure, in which case the firm will only be subject to FDCPA § 1692f(6), discussed in detail further below. This was the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Dennis Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP, No. 17-CV-1307, 2019 WL 1264579 (March 20, 2019).

In Obduskey, the homeowner defaulted on his mortgage payment, causing the lender to retain McCarthy & Holthus LLP (“Firm”)—a debt collection firm that solely recoups debt via non-judicial foreclosure—to foreclose on the home. The homeowner, Dennis Obduskey, brought an action against the Firm to challenge the foreclosure on the basis of alleged violations under the Act, among other things; in particular, Section 1692g(b). In short, Section 1692g(b) mandates a debt collector to cease all collection efforts and verify the debt it is attempting to collect if a debtor challenges/disputes the debt.

The Court, in agreement with the lower courts, ruled in favor of the Firm and dismissed the case against same on the basis that the Act (i.e., § 1692g(b)) did not apply to the Firm as it was not a “debt collector” under the Act’s primary definition (un-emphasized portion):

The term “debt collector” means any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another…For the purpose of section 1692f(6) of this title, such term [“debt collector”] also includes any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the enforcement of security interests.

(FDCPA § 1692a(6).) (Emphasis added.)  The Court found that Section 1692f(6) of the Act was the only section applicable to the Firm as it fell under the “limited purpose definition” of “debt collector” (“LPD”)—section emphasized above—as its sole method of recouping debt was by enforcing security interests held in personal/real property through non-judicial means (e.g., non-judicial foreclosure), exempting the Firm from the rest of the Act.

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housing-crisisCalifornia is currently facing a serious shortage of affordable housing.  The housing crunch is impacting individuals and businesses in all parts of the state.  Businesses are having trouble attracting and retaining employees and individuals face longer commute times and overcrowding, among a host of other issues.

To combat the affordable housing crisis, the California Legislature recently passed the Building Homes and Jobs Act (“Act”).  Effective immediately, the Act adds a new section to the Government Code (Section 27388.1) and a new chapter to the Health and Safety Code (Division 31, Part 2, Chapter 2.5).

Effective January 1, 2018, the Act imposes a $75.00 fee for the recording of certain real estate documents like HOA governing documents and collection documents (i.e. CC&Rs, liens, notices of default, etc.) and cannot exceed $225.00 per transaction.  The fees generated from the Act will be made available to local governments and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research through the creation of the Building Homes and Jobs Trust Fund (“Fund”).  The Fund will be managed by the California State Treasury.

How the Building Homes and Jobs Act Will Adversely Impact HOAs in California

Central to all HOAs is the collection of assessments on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis.  When a homeowner is delinquent in the payment of assessments, an HOA typically records various lien documents to secure its interest thereby ensuring that it is paid what is owed.

Imposing a $75.00 fee each time these documents are recorded will increase the cost to a delinquent homeowner to resolve an assessment debt with his or her HOA.  For homeowners who are already in financial straits and having difficulty making their assessment payments, the added fees to be imposed when lien documents are recorded will make it increasingly difficult for these individuals to bring their assessment accounts current and ultimately remain in their homes.

How the Recording Fees are Distributed through the Building Homes and Jobs Trust Fund

County Recorder Offices will be responsible for remitting the fees they collect on a quarterly basis directly to the Fund.  To gain access to the fees collected, local governments must submit proposals to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research detailing how they plan to use the fees to update planning and zoning ordinances that will streamline housing production.

In addition, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research will be permitted to use a portion of the fees collected in the Fund to combat homelessness and to create, rehabilitate, and preserve transitional rental housing.

California HOA lawyers Despite the adverse impact the Act will likely have on HOAs across the state of California, its ultimate goal is to leverage billions of dollars in private investment, lessen the demands on law enforcement and dwindling health resources as fewer people are forced to live on the streets or in substandard housing, and increase businesses’ ability to attract and retain skilled workers.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Kyle B. Roybal, Esq.

hoa-assessment-collection-houseThe collection practices of HOA collection vendors have come under increased scrutiny over recent years. For example, we have written about how California courts have struck down a vendor’s ability to reject partial payments. Those actions resonated throughout the HOA industry and resulted in significant changes to the approaches taken by collection vendors when pursuing the debt owed to their HOA clients. The most significant changes however have come in response to attacks made against collection vendors that operate under a “no cost” collection model. We have also written about this issue and how the “no cost” collection model results in liability exposure for violations of the California Civil Code as well as applicable state and federal fair debt collection laws. To our surprise, despite the actions that collection vendors have wisely taken to shift away from the “no cost” model, we are still seeing instances where a HOA has opted to utilize the services of a “no cost” collection vendor without understanding the substantial risks of doing so.

As nonprofit corporations with fixed budgets, the idea of a “no cost” collection model is certainly attractive to HOAs. Under a “no cost” model, the collection vendor does not charge the HOA any upfront fees or costs for the collection services it performs, but rather collects those amounts directly from the delinquent homeowner. However, in doing so, the United States Bankruptcy Court in California first noted how this approach violates applicable provisions of the Civil Code, and further “opens the door to all sorts of mischief, as an HOA has no incentive whatsoever to question costs for which it is not liable and no incentive to search for services charging more reasonable costs.” (In re Cisneros, (Bankr. N.D. Cal. 2012), (“Cisneros”).) That rationale was underscored in the most recent attack on “no cost” collection models put forth in the case of Hanson v. JQD, LLC d/b/a Pro Solutions, (N.D. Cal., 2014) (“Hanson v. Pro Solutions”).

In Hanson v. Pro Solutions, a HOA hired a collection vendor (“Pro Solutions”) operating under a “no cost” model.  California Civil Code § 5650 allows for a HOA to recover reasonable costs and attorney’s fees “incurred” by the HOA in collecting delinquent assessments. However, Pro Solutions’ “no cost” model did not result in the HOA incurring any fees or costs for Pro Solutions’ services. Rather, the fees and costs charged for Pro Solutions’ services were never billed to the HOA but were instead billed directly to the delinquent homeowner. The plaintiff homeowner alleged that this practice violated the Civil Code and federal and state fair debt collection laws, relying in part on the rationale underlying the Court’s decision in Cisneros.

The Court in Hanson v. Pro Solutions agreed with the homeowner and waived an even bigger red flag to collection vendors operating under a “no cost” model:

“Although no California appellate court has directly addressed whether, as here, a third-party vendor acting on behalf of a HOA can lawfully charge a delinquent homeowner fees not incurred by the HOA, the aforementioned authorities prompt a conclusion that Pro Solutions’ right to impose debt collection fees against Hanson extends no further than the [HOA’s] right to do the same…Pro Solutions’ fees apparently are neither incurred nor paid by the HOAs that contract for the company’s “no cost” services. If California law nonetheless entitled Pro Solutions to impose the fees of its choosing against homeowners like Hanson, the company would wield unchecked power to extract a cascade of fees and costs from a HOA’s delinquent members.”

Hanson v. Pro Solutions was settled and therefore did not result in any precedential court decision on the issue of “no cost” collection models. However, the Court’s language was strikingly clear, as was the warning it sent to HOAs and collection vendors. Even though the HOA was not named as a defendant in Hanson v. Pro Solutions, there is nothing to prevent a HOA utilizing a “no cost” collection vendor from being named as a defendant in a similar suit and thus exposed to significant liability.

California HOA lawyers HOA Boards and management professionals must recognize that, regardless of what type of entity a HOA uses to collect delinquent assessments (an attorney, third party collection agency, etc.), there will be fees and costs associated with their collection services, and that the HOA must pay for those services in order for them to be incorporated into the debt that is recovered from the homeowner. This incentivizes collection vendors to provide services that are not only effective, but cost-efficient, and in doing so helps protect the financial interests of HOAs as well as homeowners who may fall behind on their assessment payments.

*New Case Lawhoa-partial-payments.jpg

Collecting delinquent assessments remains one of the more challenging and frustrating aspects of a homeowners association’s (“HOA’s”) operations. Once a delinquent file is forwarded to a HOA’s collection company or law firm, industry practice has been to reject any partial payments made by the delinquent homeowner (i.e., to reject any payments that do not cover all of the delinquent assessment amount, including late fees, interest, collection costs, etc.) that have accrued on the homeowner’s account. That approach has been based upon the language set forth in Civil Code Sections 5655 and 5720. Civil Code Section 5720 allows for a HOA to foreclose on a delinquent assessment lien only where the delinquent assessment amount is $1,800 or greater, or are more than 12 months delinquent. Civil Code Section 5655, however, sets forth the way in payments made by a delinquent homeowner must be allocated (i.e., first to the delinquent assessment amount, then to collection fees, late charges, etc.).

Accordingly, if a homeowner is allowed to make a series of partial payments that must first be applied to the delinquent assessment amount, the homeowner could structure a way in which to avoid foreclosure of his property (i.e., through keeping the delinquent assessment amount under $1,800 or under 12 months delinquent), while not paying all or any of the amounts necessary to cover the HOA’s collection fees and costs it has incurred in connection with the homeowner’s delinquency. This would ultimately place the HOA in a difficult position of having to incur more collection fees and costs solely to collect the unpaid collection fees and costs which the HOA has already incurred. Thus, collection companies and firms have traditionally rejected partial payments in order to avoid this problem–especially in light of the absence of any language in the Civil Code explicitly requiring HOAs to accept partial payments. If the homeowner desires to provide partial payments, the only opportunity to do so would be pursuant to a payment plan executed between the homeowner and the HOA.

However, a recent decision from the Fourth District, Division Three, of the California Court of Appeal has indicated that HOAs do indeed have an affirmative obligation to accept partial payments notwithstanding the concerns referenced above…

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hoa-assessment-collection-house.jpgIn October of 2012, we blogged about a United States Bankruptcy Court case that addressed the proper interpretation and effect of Civil Code Section 5650 allowing for a HOA to recover delinquent assessments, along with “reasonable costs incurred in collecting the delinquent assessment, including reasonable attorney’s fees.” In sum, the Court ruled that the delinquent homeowner was not liable for the fees and costs imposed by the HOA’s collection company that was operating on a contingency basis. Because the HOA was not responsible to pay the collection company’s fees directly, those fees were not costs “incurred” by the HOA which the HOA was legally entitled to recover from the delinquent homeowner. We then predicted that the case may affect the terms under which collection companies contract with HOAs, especially those companies that operate on a contingency (“no-cost”) basis.

Another case currently being litigated in Northern California is addressing this same issue. Though the case is still pending, a recent order issued by the United States District Court, N.D., California illustrates the how the courts may be trending with regard to the fees and costs imposed by collection companies that contract with HOAs on a contingency basis:

“Although no California appellate court has directly addressed whether, as here, a third-party vendor acting on behalf of a HOA can lawfully charge a delinquent homeowner fees not incurred by the HOA, the aforementioned authorities prompt a conclusion that [the collection company’s] right to impose debt collection fees against [the homeowner] extends no further than the [HOA’s] right to do the same….[the collection company’s] fees apparently are neither incurred nor paid by the HOAs that contract for the company’s ‘no-cost’ services. If California law nonetheless entitled [the collection company] to impose the fees of its choosing against homeowners…the company would wield unchecked power to extract a cascade of fees and costs from a HOA’s delinquent members.” (Emphasis added).

hoa laws

There has been a string of recent court cases illustrating how now, more than ever, HOAs and collection companies are being scrutinized for their collection procedures. HOA Boards and managers should be cognizant of the legal requirements with regard to assessment collection, and how deviations from those requirements may expose the HOA to liability.
Tinnelly Law Group is proud to provide its clients with access to comprehensive, attorney-supervised assessment collection services through the use of its affiliate, Alterra Assessment Recovery.

hoa-foreclosure-article.jpgBe sure to check out Steve Tinnelly’s latest article he authored for the “OC View,” an educational bi-monthly magazine published by the Orange County Regional Chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI).

The article, entitled “Foreclosure Face-Off,” compares and contrasts the two foreclosure processes available to California HOAs in their assessment collection efforts (non-judicial and judicial foreclosure). It discusses the primary advantages and disadvantages associated with each process, and how they may be impacted by economic factors and issues unique to each delinquency. Our firm is privileged to have the opportunity to work with CAI and to contribute to its educational efforts. For more information on CAI, we encourage you to visit its website at caionline.org.

hoa laws

Tinnelly Law Group is proud to provide its clients with access to comprehensive, attorney-supervised assessment collection services through the use of its affiliate, Alterra Assessment Recovery (“Alterra”). Alterra’s service offering includes both foreclosure processes, and an array of ancillary services developed to resolve delinquent matters as quickly and efficiently as possible. For more information on Alterra, visit its website at alterracollections.com.

hoa update 2014Our “Annual Legislative & Case Law Update” newsletter for the year 2014 is now available in our library!

The Legislative & Case Law Update provides an overview of the new legislation and case law impacting California Homeowners Associations (“HOAs”) as we head into 2014. The new legislation includes, among other items, the re-organization of the Davis-Stirling Act (now in effect), and a bill that clarifies contractor licensing requirements for HOA managers. The new case law includes rulings that may impact HOA election rules, membership rights to attend Board meetings, use of HOA media outlets during election campaigns, insurance defense coverage, attorney’s fees recovery in HOA disputes, and assessment collection procedures.

Click here to read our Annual Legislative & Case Law Update (2014)

Have questions on any of the new legislation or case law? Click here to send us a question online.

*New Case Lawredemption-rights.jpg

Earlier this year, we blogged about an appellate court case that underscored the necessity for a homeowners association (“HOA”) to strictly comply with the statutory procedures and requirements applicable to assessment collection. That case focused on various requirements pertaining to the transmittal of notices (i.e., assessment lien notices, notices of right to request alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”), notice of the Board’s decision to initiate foreclosure of an assessment lien, etc.) The HOA’s failure to strictly comply with those requirements ultimately resulted in the invalidation of the HOA’s assessment lien and also an award of attorney’s fees and costs to the delinquent homeowner.

The case of Multani v. Witkin & Neal et al., (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 590, (“Multani“) similarly involved allegations of procedural defects by a HOA’s collection agent. However, the Court’s ruling in Multani is significant in that it addresses the statutory, ninety (90) day “right of redemption” afforded to a homeowner that may have lost ownership of her unit through nonjudicial foreclosure of a delinquent assessment lien…

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hoa lawsOur annual “Legislative & Case Law Update” newsletter for the year 2013 is now available in our library!

The Legislative & Case Law Update provides an overview of the new legislation and case law impacting California Homeowners Associations (“HOAs”) as we head into 2013. The new legislation includes, among other items, bills that impact Bank foreclosures, the re-organization of the Davis-Stirling Act, EV Charging Stations and fees charged by HOAs in producing certain records. The new case law includes rulings that may impact the architectural restrictions placed on the installation of solar panels, arbitration provisions for construction defect disputes, “no-cost” HOA collections contracts, election disputes and defamation claims. The Legislative & Case Law Update also addresses some new Fannie Mae and FHA regulations impacting condominium insurance and certification requirements.

Click here to read our Legislative & Case Law Update (2013)

Have questions on any of the new legislation or case law? Click here to send us a question online.