2-Dec-17 Several Chicago and Illinois condominium owners fed up with being ripped off by management companies charging excessive fees to access legal documents are fighting back with class-action lawsuits.
On November 20, CondoCerts.com Inc., a national web database that sells statutorily mandated certification documents to owners selling condos in Illinois, was hit with a $5 million punitive class-action lawsuit from sellers who claim it is illegal for the website to charge more than the reasonable cost of copying those documents.
Condo owner Robert Ahrendt, the plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, said he paid $370 for the documents he needed from CondoCerts. However, Ahrendt and other sellers say that based on how easy and fast the documents were downloaded, CondoCerts is charging far more than the cost of providing them.
CondoCerts is marketed by Mutual of Omaha as an online document management service. It electronically stores the real estate documents related to condominium transactions and provides copies upon request, tasks typically handled by a property manager.
The class-action suit accuses CondoCerts of violating the Illinois Condominium Property Act, fraud, unjust enrichment, and deceptive business practices.
The suit seeks refunds of monies paid to the company as well as punitive damages and court costs for owners who paid a fee to the company for documents related to the sale of a condo in Illinois over the past five years.
Owners claim fees excessive for documents needed to close sales
Three Illinois condominium owners filed a similar class-action lawsuit over allegations they were charged unlawful and excessive fees by a property management company for documents needed to close on the sales of their condo units.
Cecil Mathew, Nirupa Mathew, and John Murphy, on behalf of themselves and all Illinois condo property owners, filed suit on October 5 in Cook County Circuit Court against Foster/Premier Inc., of Buffalo Grove, and San Francisco-based companies Homewise Service Corp. and Next Level Association Solutions Inc., for alleged violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act and Illinois Condominium Property Act.
According to their complaint, the plaintiffs contacted the companies for copies of their condo disclosure documents in order to sell their properties. To obtain the documents, the plaintiffs were allegedly charged hundreds of dollars, an amount greatly in excess of any reasonable fee permitted by law to cover the direct out-of-pocket costs of providing such information.
The condo owners are seeking actual and punitive damages, attorney fees, interest, other expenses, and further relief as the court deems appropriate.
Documents easily available but for steep fees
Often, sellers, buyers, brokers, attorneys, appraisers, and lenders are referred to an online website to access documents they need, which are provided in an electronic format by a third-party servicer or management company for a hefty fee.
However, legal experts say the sales of the documents often are then recycled multiple times in a single transaction and each party requesting them pays the fee.
A resale disclosure package, which includes documents and mandatory disclosures listed in Section 22.1 of the Illinois Condominium Property Act, could range in cost from as little as $200 to a whopping $1,250 or more for each party requesting the documents. Additional rush fees may add hundreds of dollars to the cost of obtaining the documents even if they are stored online.
||How is it legal for a for-profit management company to resell documents that belong to unit owners in a not-for-profit condo association? asked condo owner Sara Benson (left), managing broker of Benson Stanley Realty and president of Association Evaluation, LLC, a Chicago-based real estate data analytics firm. The money is not going to the condo association. Its paid to the management company or third-party provider, entities that do not own the documents.
Benson believes that providing documents should be included in the management contracts scope of services. Also, governing documents and resale information should be posted on a password-protected website for all owners, so they can be shared with prospective buyers at no cost, she said.
Because failing to provide documents to the seller as required by the Illinois Condominium Property Act can kill the sale of a condo, Ahrendt, one of the plaintiffs, argues that sellers are stuck paying the unfairly high fees or risk the sale of their real estate.
Ahrendt said he was charged a total of $370 for access to documents, including two unexplained $20 service fees. Within minutes of receiving confirmation that the transaction went through, Ahrendt received an email saying the documents were ready for download.
The suit claims that obtaining copies of the documents filed with the Recorder of Deeds typically costs about $2.50 and it calls CondoCerts fees unreasonable considering they are digital and immediately accessible.
Plaintiff, and other similarly situated individuals, had no choice or option but to pay the unreasonable fees and costs charged by defendant to obtain and access the...documents in order to comply with the statute and the terms of the real estate sales contract, Ahrendts complaint states.
Owners pay for information that is sometimes publicly available
According to the suit, the document servicing companys conduct caused Ahrendt and other individuals to suffer harm by depriving them of a choice, charging an unlawful and unreasonable fee for the documents, and forcing them to pay the unlawful and unreasonable fees to comply with the Illinois Condominium Property Act.
Necessary documents also include a statement of any liens or other unpaid assessments against the unit, insurance information, rules and regulations, outstanding association loans, and other information common to the sale of a condo, some of which should be publicly available.
Ahrendt said that after he received a written purchase offer for his condo in May 2017, he was instructed to use CondoCerts to obtain the documents and was forced to pay the $370 in fees or risk losing the sale.
To be clear, a selling unit owners failure to turn over the Illinois Condominium Property Act documents to the potential buyer will terminate a real estate sale and the selling unit owner could be precluded from selling his own real property, the complaint says. This can cause litigation, monetary and non-monetary damages for seller.
Among the four counts in the complaint, Ahrendt and the sellers say CondoCerts violated the Illinois Condominium Property Act, as the statute caps the reasonable fee associated with copying and providing the documents to the direct out-of-pocket cost incurred by the provider.
Ahrendt alleges CondoCerts has basically no cost on its end to provide the documents, as evidenced by the speed with which the documents are provided, and the $370 is not reasonable.
Other counts in the suit include allegations that CondoCerts violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and that it unjustly enriched itself.
The complaint asks the court to certify a class to include anyone who paid CondoCerts for the Illinois Condominium Property Act documents, dating back to November 20, 2012. The complaint also seeks more than $5 million in damages, interest, and court costs.