Resident Feud May Become Test Case

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Susan M. Green

February 5, 2006

VALRICO - Last year, the Brentwood Hills Homeowners Association told Lewis Laricchia he wasn't following the deed-restricted community's rules. His lapse ended up costing $1,300, he says, paid to avoid foreclosure on his home over what started as a $35 late payment charge.

Now an ongoing feud between Laricchia and the homeowners association might end up in court and could be a test case for similar disputes statewide.

In June, Laricchia began asking for records and peppering the community manager and association board with e-mails, telling them they were breaking their own rules and possibly state law.

He pointed to the wrought iron pool fence at the clubhouse when deed restrictions specify wood or chain link. He called county code inspectors about various issues. He posted a notice about the homeowners association's authority to deny privileges and to foreclose over late payments. He questioned how board members obtained their seats.

In January, the association sued, seeking an injunction and claiming Laricchia's actions amounted to retaliatory harassment and extortion.

Laricchia, 56, a former union negotiator from New York, denies that. He said he applied to run for the association board, and he paid hundreds of dollars for copies of association records. He doesn't dispute the lawsuit's assertion that his e-mails, compiled over five months, would be 3 inches thick if printed out and measured.

"That's my right, to send e-mails," he said, adding that he had to send some several times because they went unanswered. "I was running for a position, and I sent all those e-mails so I would be up on everything."

Meanwhile, Laricchia has posted notice that Brentwood Hills must hold an election that meets state requirements or he will pursue legal action to have the state appoint a receiver to oversee the community's business affairs.

Experts say the results of that argument, if it goes to court, could affect the leadership of many of the approximately 14,000 homeowner associations in Florida.

Brentwood Hills board members Ron Goeddaeus, Dee LoPresti and Ron Gutschmidt referred inquiries to association attorney John Conley. Others, including board President Gary Clifton and his wife, Gerri, board secretary, did not return telephone calls.

Monday, in response to Laricchia's legal notice, the Brentwood Hills board scheduled a second annual election after the first one in December failed to attract enough voters to meet state minimum standards of 30 percent of association membership. The election is scheduled for Feb. 23.

It was a bittersweet victory for Laricchia, however. His name will not be on the ballot, he said. He said he hand-delivered and mailed his qualifications to be on the ballot before the deadline given him by association representatives. Unlike in previous years, when anyone could submit their name to run, he said, the board appointed a nomination committee.

Two of those committee members, Terry Doolin and Cheryl McElroy, said they approved a slate that included only the names of the sitting board members. They said they never saw Laricchia's request to be considered.

Conley said Friday the original slate approved by the nominating committee will appear on the ballot circulated to voting members. The process follows community bylaws, he said, adding that Laricchia can nominate himself from the floor at the election meeting.

Trouble At Home

Brentwood Hills is a community of more than 1,000 homes. Its leadership has been troubled since the developer turned business affairs over to a volunteer organization of homeowners in 1999.

In 2001, nine residents received mailed death threats, apparently because they were advocating a recall of the board of directors.

Laricchia said he shares his home with his mother, who has dementia and requires round-the-clock supervision.

Brentwood Hills residents pay $320 a year for community maintenance, he said. Hillsborough court records show Laricchia's mother paid late fees several times over the years, and Laricchia doesn't dispute that he paid the assessment late in 2003.

He said he did not know about a $35 late fee, however, until it had escalated to several hundred dollars in collection and interest charges. When he inquired about it, he said, he received a letter from the association attorney, who tacked on additional costs to provide the information.

Later, he found out that notification letters and mounting additional expenses had been sent to an incorrect address in Alaska. He also was told that some homeowners had their late fees waived because of medical issues. Laricchia has had heart surgery and has other health problems.

He said he plans to try to recoup some of the $1,300 he paid to settle the assessment issue by taking the matter to court mediation. He said the experience prompted him to take a closer look at the association and its practices, but that it's not a vendetta.

Conley confirmed that at least one notification letter intended for Laricchia was mailed to an incorrect address but insisted the homeowner knew of the late charges before they swelled to hundreds of dollars. He declined to discuss the association lawsuit.

In January, Conley paid $255 to file a lawsuit on behalf of the association seeking an injunction against Laricchia, accusing him of retaliation, disrupting the association's business and extortion.

The lawsuit followed a Dec. 16 letter from Conley to Laricchia accusing the resident of "harassment, retaliation, tortious interference in the Association's business affairs, and Practicing Law Without A License (a felony)." It warned that Conley would answer future questions from Laricchia at a cost that would be billed to Laricchia's association account and said the attorney was preparing a lawsuit.

"The only thing that will avoid this action is your immediate and permanent conclusion of the vendetta you have embarked on against the Board of Directors," the letter says.

"It's a simple way of intimidating people," Laricchia said last week.

"It's trying to shut him up," said Laricchia's attorney, Scott Orsini, adding that Laricchia had a legal right to make inquiries. "I think what we have is a couple of big fish in a small pond who don't like that this man is being a squeaky wheel. ... I just think they want him to go away."

Voter Turnout At Issue

The lawsuit says the extortion charge stems from a conversation Laricchia had with a former property manager. It alleges Laricchia said he would stop harassing the manager if the association refunded the collection, legal, and interest costs associated with his late payment last year. Laricchia denies that.

On Jan. 27, Laricchia posted legal notice that he would file his own injunction, alleging that Brentwood Hills hasn't had a state-mandated annual election since 2000 and thus has no legal board. Laricchia said board members declared themselves seated at the Dec. 12 meeting, when not enough votes were tallied to hold the election.

Conley, Orsini and Jan Bergemann, president of the homeowner advocacy group Cyber Citizens for Justice, said it's not unusual for voter apathy to keep homeowner association elections from attracting the required 30 percent participation.

If the question goes to court, "I think this could be kind of a test case," Orsini said.

To Bergemann, Laricchia's case and others are evidence that Florida needs to strengthen oversight of homeowner associations. He said his organization is pushing lawmakers to set up a state agency to regulate such associations and hear appeals from homeowners.

"These associations are very, very powerful," Bergemann said. "They can play with your financial welfare and that of your whole family."

He said most people don't have the time or money to take disputes to court.

"I get 50 e-mails a day from people with problems with their HOA," he said. "They say, 'Where can we go? Where can we complain?' My only answer is you have to hire an attorney."