INVESTIGATES: Ponte Vedra condo residents claim HOA is targeting them with thousands in legal fees

PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — A select group of people living at the Belleza at Ponte Vedra Condominium complex reached out to Action News Jax questioning the HOA’s authority to charge them thousands in legal fees.


Five residents living at Belleza tell Action News Jax the fees have been piling on for well over a year, claiming it all dates back to a project the condo’s board of directors approved back in 2020. That December, the board unanimously approved a $4,700 project to make the women’s bathroom in the clubhouse a staff-only bathroom, which the board says was for COVID concerns.

But it didn’t sit right with homeowners like John Duffy.

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“The women [living here] did not have access to a women’s bathroom,” Duffy says, “and the response was if they wanted to use a bathroom, they could go home.”

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Duffy took the matter to St. Johns County’s administration. The county’s building department confirmed with Action News Jax that, at the time, it investigated the project and found the board had approved the work without getting the required permit.

St. johns County permit violation report.

Since that time, the building department, which didn’t want to share comment with Action News Jax, says the bathroom project has since been properly permitted and inspected.

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But at the time Duffy and a handful of other Belleza residents found the work wasn’t permitted, they filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR). It was first filed back in July 2022.

DPBR Complaint

In March 2023, the DBPR decided it wasn’t going to prosecute the board because of what it described as a lack of evidence. But the next week, Belleza’s board sent out a letter to the community calling out the five residents who’d filed the complaint, adding it would be collecting legal fees from them for ‘false and misleading allegations.’

Belleza letter to HOA

That’s when the residents, including Brent Seaman, started seeing the fees on their monthly statements.

“We simply filed a complaint,” Seaman says, “the board wants to punish every single person who simply had questions.”

Florida law says a condominium association has to win a case in court to collect those legal fees. Florida Statute 718.303 says:

“Actions at law or in equity, or both, for failure to comply with these provisions may be brought by the association against a unit owner … the prevailing party in any such action … is entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees.”

This means a condominium association has to file a lawsuit and win to collect legal fees. But Belleza has been collecting legal fees without going to court, which Florida statutes don’t give the power to do.

Lourdes Ferrer is a consumer protection attorney at Ferrer Law Group in Boca Raton, who specializes in cases like this. She tells Action News Jax she feels the actions by Belleza’s board are inappropriate.

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“It’s beyond their scope of authority to do what they’re doing, they don’t have the authority,” Ferrer says.

Action News Jax sent Ferrer a list of documents when putting this story together, including the DBPR complaint, Belleza’s governing documents and the board’s letter to the HOA we showed you earlier. She says Belleza’s declaration doesn’t spell out the power to charge these fees without going to court.

“What’s being done here is highly improper,” Ferrer says, “I don’t even see a reasonable basis for what they’re doing.”

Other attorneys hired by the residents facing the legal fees say the same, agreeing Florida law doesn’t lay out that authority, either.

Seaman attorney opinion 1
Seaman attorney opinion 2

When these attorneys sent the above letters to the board at Belleza, they were met with this cease-and-desist letter from the board’s attorney a month later:

Cease and desist letter

Ferrer says the board could file liens against the residents if the legal fees go unpaid. A lien would give Belleza management ownership of their property until the fees are paid, otherwise they could lose their homes, as Ferrer explained to Action News Jax.

“This is a much more serious issue than people give it credit for,” says Ferrer.

For the people, like John Duffy, facing the fees, they say it’s unfair to pay it up.

“Even if we were to pay the legal fees, we might get even more because if we don’t know what we’re doing wrong, we might still be doing that conduct,” Duffy says.

More than anything, the residents say they don’t want to lose their homes.

“I’m not going anywhere,” says Seaman, “if they think I’m leaving over this, I’ll sue them back to the Stone Age.”

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Action News Jax reached out to Belleza, who didn’t want to share any comment. But their attorney gave us this statement:

“There are several fundamental inaccurate factual statements and serious false accusations being made against Belleza.”

We asked Belleza what ‘inaccurate statements’ and ‘false accusations’ it was referring to, but we’re still waiting to hear back. Belleza management continues to claim it abides by Florida law.

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