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'Frame and blame' tactics may lead to a date in court

November 03, 2002|Stephen Glassman and Donie Vanitzian Special to The Times | Special to The Times

Question: This is a small common-interest development in Los Angeles with fewer than 20 owners. We all know each other, but we do not all get along.

After being embarrassed at a meeting when the board announced that I owed fines and late fees, I asked the board to remove these charges, which I believe are erroneous. And I asked the board to tell the management company to stop threatening me with liens and sending my account to collection.

Instead, the board is now threatening to ruin my credit. Because I paid my monthly dues by money order, the date clearly shows I was not late.

To my shock, a smiling board member told me he "deliberately" withheld posting my monthly dues because he is "teaching me a lesson" to force me to live by association rules.

Neither the late fees nor the interest that is accumulating is legitimate. The board has enlisted the help of others in the complex to ridicule me by telling me to "pay up."

This is causing me great anxiety. I feel like I've been framed and don't know how to stop it. How can I have these bogus fees eradicated?

Answer: This "us-versus-them" type of badgering from boards and management companies is often referred to as "frame and blame." The homeowner may have done nothing wrong but the board makes it appear as if he or she did. This game is costly for the homeowner, who could ultimately lose the house over late or nonpayment issues.

In this scenario, the board fails to deposit the association dues payment until after the due date, then alleges the payment was late. It is the owner's word against theirs.

Taking the added precaution of mailing the payment by a method requiring a signature upon receipt or other proof of delivery -- including a letter documenting the serial number of the money order and describing what you intended the payment to apply to -- are no guarantee that a board might not succeed with late-payment accusations.

In your case, there is a significant legal difference in that a board member admitted the payment was withheld because you "deserve it." This statement could work in your favor should you pursue a lawsuit against the association or have to defend against one brought by them.

You need to document the board member's statements in a letter to the board, dispute the charges and demand proof of the late-payment allegations.

Should you be forced to file a lawsuit, the conduct of your board could be used against it. A lawyer can give you more information about whether statements made by the board member and the imposition of erroneous late fees are actionable.

"Frame and blame" tactics have gained momentum because there is no law penalizing boards or management companies that use this ploy, nor is there a law providing assistance to homeowners who bear the brunt of the tactic. Homeowners are afforded the small consolation that an association cannot foreclose for failure to pay "fines."

Unfortunately, the only remedy available to homeowners is the lawsuit.

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Stephen Glassman is a writer and an attorney in private practice specializing in corporate and business law. Donie Vanitzian, J.D., is a writer and arbitrator and manages commercial property. Both live in common interest developments and have served on various association boards. They are the authors of "Villa Appalling! Destroying the Myth of Affordable Community Living" (Villa Appalling Publishing Inc., 2002). Please send questions to: P.O. Box 451278, Los Angeles, CA 90045 or e-mail your queries to: cidcommonsense@aol.com.

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