South Sound News

South Sound woman billed nearly $8,000 for late $300 HOA payment

A South Sound homeowner has paid thousands of dollars just to satisfy a bill for a few hundred dollars.

That bill was from the homeowners’ association and the cost skyrocketed because the payment was late.

Jennifer Hart pays her homeowners' association $310 a year to live in Lakeland Hills, near Auburn. 
She forgot to pay that amount in January 2017 and, to date, she has now paid out $7,753.59 in late fees and attorney's fees.

For months, Hart has spent hours every day pouring over documents and she still doesn’t understand how that $310 bill became $7,753.59.

“It was just an oversight. Every other bill that I pay is online, as far as my power, my water, cable,” Hart said.

She said she never saw the bill from the Lakeland Homeowners Association in the mail in January 2017, so she didn’t even think about it until she opened her mail last October and discovered that an attorney had filed a lawsuit for $2,967.37 and a lien against her home.

“I emailed the attorney right away and explained some things that were going on, and how can I fix this. Garnishment will literally devastate my family.

So he responded back and said, ‘You need to propose something,’ so I started proposing offers to him to make sure this didn’t go to garnishment,” Hart said.

She said her offers were refused, and her wages, as well as her husband’s wages, were garnished for nearly two months.

The family of seven struggled through the holidays but saw the light at the end of the tunnel: In January 2018, their debt was supposed to be satisfied.

“Getting the next bill was quite a bit of a shock,” said Hart, who said the bill was for $4,078.

So, if you’re keeping track, that’s a total of $7,753.59 Hart has been billed, of which $1,120 is late fees plus dues owed to the HOA, and $5,374.76 is attorney’s fees.

"I accept the original garnishment as my error. It's the additional $4,078 that hurts really bad. 
It's like they're out to actually devastate families instead of work with them," Hart said.

We took her case to Seattle property attorney Katie Comstock.

Comstock is not the attorney for Hart's HOA but she’s seen this situation before.

She said part of the problem is that many people don’t understand the process of contesting a lawsuit such as this.

“Many people just think calling the attorney is answering the lawsuit. They don’t know that the word ‘answer’ means a legal document that is filed with the court against the homeowners’ association and they’ll miss that step and, by missing that step, you can get a judgment against you, your wages garnished, a lien against your home. It can get pretty bad,” Comstock said.

Comstock said the extra $4,078 likely resulted from the work the attorney did during the garnishment.

“Attorney’s fees will just keep accruing and, every step they’ll do, they’ll ask the court for more fees and so whatever those original fees were could double,” said Comstock.

And it’s all legal. The Lakeland HOA laid out its process for collecting delinquent dues in its most recent newsletter.

“You can have a $300 judgment and get $90,000 in attorney’s fees. The case law allows for that if the attorney’s fees are reasonable and they’ve taken all the steps,” Comstock said.

Hart said a reasonable approach would have been trying to work with her to make payments before the situation got to this point.

"We had been saving money. We want to take our son on a vacation before he turns 18. 
We've never actually gone on a big family vacation before so we took all that money that we worked our butts off for and just paid them," Hart said.

We contacted the Lakeland HOA and the attorney. The attorney said he cannot talk about any case involving his clients.

There could be some change on the horizon. A state senator has been working on drafting legislation that would move issues such as this with HOAs out of the courts and into a dispute resolution program.

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