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Legal Complaints About Sterling Management Concluding
May 8, 2008 - 9:24:34 PM

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KINGS POINT – Litigation initiated here to alter the handling of certain records required when a condominium unit is refinanced or sold may be wrapping up with part of the objective achieved – and in practice.

Residents throughout the community last week received a “Court Notice” outlining litigation originally filed in July, 2006, which named a then-resident as plaintiff and Sterling Management Services, the community’s on-site management company, as defendant.   The notice also outlines a proposed settlement and the means of finalizing it. 

The lawsuit alleged that Sterling unfairly required payment of a fee for an estoppel letter before producing its information about any unpaid fees or assessments to be owed or owing a condo or homeowner’s association in connection with a unit subject to the re-fi or sales transaction closing process. 

Such information is needed for an accurate final settlement statement at the closing.  Requiring payment prior to closing means that a charge for the information would have to be paid by an individual in advance of the transaction closing rather than arranging it as part of the settling up among the parties at the time of closing.

The plaintiff also alleged that Sterling’s $100 fee, in and of itself, was “unconscionably high.”

Brian May, Sterling’s professional manager on site in Kings Point, said this week the process concerning production of estoppel letters has been altered.  Pertinent information on a unit being re-financed or sold and transferred is being provided prior to the scheduled closing, with payment of the fee for such service handled as part of the closing rather than beforehand, May told The Observer Monday. 

As for the fee rate, it remains unchanged, May stated. Sterling’s charge for the estoppel information compares favorably with that required in other similar communities in similar circumstances, he said, adding that such fees in other communities across the state range into the $200 bracket.   

The original litigation was filed in Hillsborough County on July 12, 2006, as a civil action styled “JOSEPH FRITZ, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated,”  versus “STERLING FIN. & MGMT, INC., d/b/a STERLING MANAGEMENT SERVICES, a corporation.”   On November 29, 2006, the plaintiff filed a “First Amended Class Action Complaint” making claims against Sterling under provisions of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and under a state statute governing issuance of estoppel letters pertinent to condo units in a condo association. 

The statute authorizes “reasonable” fees but does not specify dollar amounts.  The law also does not expressly prohibit seeking payment for the estoppel information prior to providing it.

Sterling consistently has denied it was violating any law with either its practices or its fee rate.
The proposed settlement, in essence, provides that Sterling will defer payment for issuing an estoppel letter for a KP condo until the closing and if no closing is held, Sterling will not receive a fee for complying with an estoppel request.  The settlement also would “resolve all claims, concerns, or issues regarding Sterling’s charging of a fee in the amount of $100…” 

Additionally, the settlement gives the named plaintiff, Joseph Fritz, $2,000 and makes Sterling responsible for legal fees and expenses. The company has agreed to a total payment of $40,000.

However, as the court notice states “Joseph Fritz has been designated as the Representative Plaintiff for the Settlement Class.”, it also requires that each member of the settlement class be a current condo owner in a condo association in KP.   There is no evidence of a Joseph Fritz living in Kings Point.    

The Observer tried to locate the named plaintiff, Joseph Fritz.   The 2008 Greater Sun City Center Membership Directory does not list a Joseph Fritz in Kings Point, Sun City Center, Freedom Plaza or Sun Towers.   In addition, a search of Hillsborough County property records online did not produce any evidence of any property in the Sun City Center area owned by a Joseph Fritz.  A search of internet-based white pages directories indicated a Joseph Fritz of Sun City Center with a stated age of 98 years.

A Joseph R. Fritz is listed in county property records as owning a house in the Seffner area and the greater Tampa telephone directory lists a Joseph R. Fritz as an attorney with a Nebraska Avenue address.  

May said his understanding is that the elder Joseph Fritz did reside in Kings Point at one time but subsequently sold his home.   The younger Joseph Fritz, an attorney in Tampa and son of the elder Fritz, pressed the legal action on behalf of his father, May indicated.

Joseph Fritz, the attorney, verified and elaborated on this information Tuesday.  He said the name “Joseph Fritz” in the case style refers to both his father, now 99 and living in a Brandon assisted living facility, and to himself, as owners of the KP condo.  He also said he signed the original complaint as legal counsel for his father. 

The condominium unit in which both he and his father had an interest was sold in 2005, the lawyer added.

The court notice, approved by Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard on April 22 and received by KP residents last week, also provides a timeframe for actions by residents, ranging from deadline for opting out of the proposed settlement to a last hearing date. 

The settlement class is to be composed of all persons or entities who are current owners of condo units in a condo association in KP managed by Sterling  and who do not remove themselves by completing, executing and mailing the  “exclusion form” within 30 days.   Those who do opt out of the settlement class will not be included in the settlement benefits and have no standing to file any comments or objections to the proposed settlement.

If 45 or more unit owners opt out of the settlement class or if the same number provide in a timely manner objections to the settlement, Sterling can withdraw from the agreement.  

Members of the settlement class have until June 24  - 10 days prior to the scheduled hearing date -to supply any written comments or objections regarding the proposed settlement to either the court or to one of two law firms.   

And, while the court has given the proposed settlement preliminary approval, a final hearing is slated for July 8 before Judge Stoddard in Tampa.

Attempts by The Observer to reach several of the attorneys named in the court notice for additional information were not successful.

© 2008 Melody Jameson

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