An Olney woman is asking a federal court to award her $1 million in damages for a dispute that started over a $236 bill from her homeowners association.
The trial began Tuesday in federal court in Greenbelt. Janice Fontell of Olney is a member of the Norbeck Grove Community Association. She was billed $236 in 2003, and now is seeking $1 million in damages against The Management Group Associates, Inc.; Jeff Gatling, president of the management group, and Todd Hassett, director of properties for the management group, claiming that the liens they filed against her kept her from refinancing or selling her home, forced her through years of litigation, and caused severe mental anguish. She also was barred from using common amenities like the community’s pool for the last six years, she said in court.
Fontell, an accountant, also claims that the liens prevented her from finding a job.
The case stems from Fontell’s refusal to pay a bill that her homeowners association and the property management group it had hired said derived from an error in billing that caused them to underbill their members. The bill, originally more than $8,000, was divided among the 36 members of the condominium association, making her share just over $236.
Fontell disputed the bill, and claimed that the homeowners association was trying to double bill her. She has paid all of her other bills on time, she said.
The Norbeck Grove Community Association sued Fontell in District Court in Rockville in 2008; she successfully appealed that ruling in Circuit Court on the basis that the association had waited longer than Maryland’s three-year statute of limitations for such claims to sue her. It later reached the Court of Special Appeals, but dismissed in January 2011. The Maryland Court of Appeals later refused to hear the case when the homeowners association brought the case there.
The initial lien and later liens, along with late fees and attorney fees, grew to more than $6,000, she said.
In 2011, Maryland’s Attorney Grievance Commission informed Fontell the lien against her and the other liens filed by The Management Group Associates, Inc. and Gatling were illegal, because they were not filed by an attorney.
In the case in federal court, U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr. had previously found in 2012 the defendants liable under the Maryland Collection Agency Licensing Act, and therefore in violation of the Maryland Consumer Debt Collections Act and the Maryland Consumer Protections Act, and for illegally collecting debts when they were not licensed to do so. Richard Schimel, who is representing the homeowners association in federal court this week, asked in his opening statement that jurors keep “perspective,” and that they should award compensation, not punishment.