Arbomar unit owner Pete DiNicola’s lawsuit against the board of the 31-unit condo and four of its five members remains pending, but he isn’t just seeking damages.
DiNicola wants to change state laws that govern how condo residents remove board members, and he is asking Gov. Rick Scott and the Longboat Key Town Commission for help.
A unit owner since 2004, DiNicola wrote a July 28 letter to Scott and Mayor Jim Brown asking town officials to work with the state to remove the board and place a receiver in charge, pending an investigation and the installation of a new board.
“The enforcement of Condominium laws is left to citizens to file a Law Suit (sic) which many elderly and financially restricted members of our community cannot afford, and it can take years to settle these suits costing tens of thousands of dollars. I have filed a Law Suit, at my own expense, because I am fortunate to have the means to try to address the issues and help the people in the building, but it is a very slow process and does nothing to protect us from immediate harm. These Condo laws assume the disputes involve differences of opinion and not criminal activity,” the letter states.
DiNicola also filed an Aug. 1 amended complaint in Manatee County Court that contains new allegations, including that board members illegally held meetings in secret and didn’t follow proper procedure when they approved a window project that’s currently underway, which resulted in an assessment of $8,000 per unit owner.
DiNicola told the Longboat Observer that the crux of his lawsuit hasn’t changed, but the amended complaint shows collusion among board members.
“Illegal construction and damaged property values are still the core of this lawsuit,” he said. “The amended complaint is about showing the actions of this board.”
The lawsuit stems from allegations that the board’s president, Walter “Chip” Major conducted unlicensed construction work on his and three other units in the condo, including the residence of board member Judith Spiezio. The suit accuses board members of violating the condo association’s covenants and breaching their fiduciary duty.
In an email to the Longboat Observer, DiNicola accused Major of running for board president to use the position “to continue unlicensed work and to hide his activities by controlling the Board and to avoid following Association by-laws/procedures and Florida law.”
Major did not return multiple phone calls from the Longboat Observer. Spiezio and board member Ed Kaczynski, who are both named in the suit, declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.
DiNicola, who typically uses his unit one week a month and spends an additional two or three weeks there per year for vacation, said he never had an issue with the board until earlier this year, after the condo elected a new board.
“I noticed a shift in tone,” he said, noting that he was disturbed when he read in meeting minutes that board members had asked building manager Kent Lagro, also an Arbomar unit owner, whether he was considering retirement due to his age (78), and about the window project that he contends was done improperly.
Previously, the association had discussed completing the $500,000 project over a two-year period because staggering the work would have allowed the association to use its reserve funds to pay for it, because the condo receives income from mobile carriers for cellular antennae on the building’s roof.
DiNicola emailed the board a letter May 1 that he asked be read out loud at an association meeting that accuses the board of sending out “heavy-handed emails that tell people they are responsible for replacing their sliding glass doors and threatening people with $50 a day fines and liens against their property” and criticized the board’s treatment of Lagro.
“If I see further actions by this Board to serve their own interests and impose their values on the community, I will engage my resources and Florida based legal expertise to counter these actions,” he wrote.
DiNicola said after his letter was read, he heard from other unit owners, who informed him of illegal construction work. After discussions with Lagro, DiNicola reported the work to the Longboat Key Planning Zoning and Building Department.
The board notified unit owners in a May 15 letter that “certain renovations performed inside a condominium unit appear to be in violation of applicable building code provision(s), specifically in that wood 2-by-4s were used in some framing when metal framing should have been used.”
The letter states that Major was acting in an individual capacity, not in his role as board president and stated that he was taking corrective steps and offered personal apologies.
In a June 20 letter to unit owners, Major wrote the board had opted to hire a professional management company and would not sign an employment agreement extension with Lagro. Lagro, who said he learned about his termination when he, along with other unit owners, received the June 20 letter, described his termination, saying:
“I’m the whistleblower,” he said.
The town red-tagged one unit for not having proper documentation but issued permits for three other units. On Tuesday, Building Official Wayne Thorne told the Longboat Observer that the red tag had been removed, a permit has been issued and inspections are ongoing.
“My staff has not given any indication that there have been any issues to the structure,” Thorne said when asked about potential damages to the building.
DiNicola and other unit owners attempted to recall the board but didn’t get sufficient votes for the effort.
A motion filed on behalf of the board to dismiss DiNicola’s complaint states that “it is clear that the Complaint does not demonstrate that any of Defendants alleged actions, statements, votes, or inactions rise to the level of conduct for which a Board Member can be held statutorily liable for damages.”
The motion also states that Major and Spiezio didn’t use their roles as board members to avoid costs associated with permits.
“Rather, any unit owner or contractor could complete work without permits,” it states.
DiNicola is seeking damages in excess of $15,000. He claims the work has impacted the building’s safety and reduced the value of his unit.
As of Tuesday afternoon, no hearings had been scheduled for the case.
Mayor Jim Brown, to whom DiNicola addressed his July 28 letter seeking changes for removing board, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Vice Mayor Jack Duncan does not believe the town has a larger role to play in the case.
“As far as the permitting and code enforcement goes, that’s where our purview ends,” he said. “As far as condo boards, it’s a whole area of statutes that’s overseen and dictated by state law.”