Deadly condo dispute fuels mediation push


Article Courtesy of the Chicago SUN-TIMES

Published August 9, 2004

When Rita A. Hohmeier was shot to death last month in a condominium dispute in west suburban Franklin Park, the news hit home Downstate.

Monica Sadler -- a Knox County woman who says she's racked up more than $750,000 in legal bills fighting her homeowners association -- was horrified. Yet she understood the frustration of alleged killer Zdzislaw "Wally" Kuchlewski.

Kuchlewski gunned down the 75-year-old Hohmeier -- his condo board secretary -- after he was evicted for failing to pay $640 in condo assessments, $350 in court costs and $3,133 in attorney's fees, police said.

State law allows condo associations to recover a property owner's debts by renting out the unit. Once the debt is paid off, the owner gets the property back. A lawyer typically handles the eviction proceedings for the association.

Sadler said the legal system discourages property owners like Kuchlewski from settling arguments with their associations.

She believes Illinois ought to follow the example of Florida, where in June, Gov. Jeb Bush approved reforms that provide oversight for homeowners associations and condo boards -- and encourage the parties to settle their differences quickly.

"The lawyers play a huge part in all of these problems," Sadler said.

Occasionally, such problems explode in violence. In Arizona, for instance, Richard Glassel burst into a retirement community's homeowner meeting and killed two people in April 2000 after he lost his home at the complex to foreclosure, police said.

Other times, seemingly trivial disputes drag on for years. George Andres, a former Marine, planted a flagpole in front of his Jupiter, Fla., town house six years ago and started flying the American flag. His homeowners association took him to court, saying installation of the flagpole violated its rules.

Andres said he appeared before judges 28 times and piled up about $40,000 in attorney's bills. He lost the case and was ordered to pay $25,000 to cover the association's expenses.

In 1997, Sadler sued the lakefront Oak Run subdivision where she lives, opposing the subdivision of a neighbor's lot. A second home was never built on the lot. Yet the wrangling continues over three lawsuits spawned by the property dispute.

Sadler, 47, said she appeared in June before the state appeals court in Elgin in one of those cases. The appeal was moved from the court in her region after she complained that some judges were biased because they once represented Oak Run.

"If this can happen to me and my family in rural Illinois, this can happen anywhere," she said.

John Robertson, an attorney for Oak Run, would not discuss Sadler or the lawsuits. Still, he said he would welcome legislation that resolves such problems more fairly and efficiently. He noted that mandatory arbitration works in personal injury cases in Illinois.

"But sometimes when you talk about remedial legislation, the cure is worse than the illness," he said.

Evan McKenzie, an associate professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, said such community associations can voluntarily hire a mediator to resolve such conflicts -- although Robertson noted that an association's internal governing rules may not allow such an alternative to legal action.

Another option is for a municipality or the state to assess a small fee -- maybe $10 a year -- to each condo owner or homeowner belonging to a community association to cover the costs of a mediation program.

Sadler, meanwhile, has coined a new catchphrase for property owners who attack members of their association boards: "Going Wally."