For Property Owner Actions Against Condo/HOA Associations, the Statute of Limitations Begins to run Once the Owner Gains Title to the Property
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On August 21, 2013, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal issued an opinion clarifying when the statute of limitations begins to run for a cause of action that a property owner brings against an association. In Harris v. Aberdeen Property Owners Association, Inc., the Court held that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a property owner gains title to the property because that is when the property owner becomes bound by the association’s declaration, bylaws, rules and regulations. 2013 WL 4436603 at 3 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013). This ruling applies to property owner actions against HOAs, condominium associations and master associations.
A statute of limitations is a set maximum timeframe in which a legal proceeding must be initiated after an event has occurred. When the event occurs, it is said that the “cause of action arises” at that time. If the statute of limitations for that event is four years, then a person who wishes to bring a cause of action concerning that event has four years in which to do so. If the action is brought outside of that four-year period then the Court can throw out the case pursuant to a statute of limitations defense. When it comes to actions involving real property, the Florida Statutes set the statute of limitations for the various causes of actions under Florida law.
The issue in the Harris case was that in 2004 the HOA and master association declarations were amended as to require all homeowners to join the Aberdeen Golf & Country Club (the “Club”). Harris gained title to property within the HOA and master community in October of 2006, which was approximately two years after the declarations were amended. Harris never joined the Club and, in 2010, she brought a three-count lawsuit against the HOA, the master association and the Club challenging the association’s requirement that she join. Under the Florida Statutes, the statute of limitations for such a claim was five years. Fla. Stat. § 95.11(2)(b). The defendants asserted a defense of the statute of limitations, arguing that the cause of action accrued in 2004 when the associations amended their declarations to require Club membership of all property owners. The lower court agreed and entered a final summary judgment in favor of the associations and the Club. Harris subsequently appealed to Florida’s Fourth DCA. Harris, 2013 WL 4436603 at 1.
On appeal, Harris argued that her cause of action did not accrue until she took title to the property affected by the amendment, which was in October of 2006, meaning that the statute of limitations did not expire until 2011. The crux of Harris’ argument was that, until she took title to the property, she had no interest in the property and therefore had yet to suffer any damages. The HOA and master associations remained adamant that the statute of limitations for actions involving their declarations began to run when their amended declarations were recorded. The crux of the associations’ argument was that the limitations period began to run, not just for Harris, but for anyone who might at some point challenge the mandatory membership amendment, at the time the amendment was recorded because that is when the public was put on notice. Id. at 2.
Florida’s Fourth DCA, in ruling in favor of Harris and overturning the lower court’s decision, explained that a person who takes title to a property governed by a declaration, bylaws, rules and regulations, does not agree to those items when they are recorded, but rather, agrees only when that person takes title to the property. In other words, a person is not affected by an association’s declaration, bylaws, rules and regulations until the time that person actually owns the property. As a result, Florida’s Fourth DCA held that a property owner’s cause of action against an HOA, condominium or master association does not accrue, and the statute of limitations does not begin to run, until that property owner gained title to the property.