An Olney woman will get $25,000 — far less than the $1 million in compensation she had petitioned for — in a case where she took her homeowners association’s property management group to court.
A jury awarded Janice Fontell $25,000 Wednesday in federal court in Greenbelt.
Fontell, a member of the Norbeck Grove Community Association, had been seeking up to $1 million in damages for a dispute that started over a $236 bill from her homeowners association.
“The verdict was small and disappointing but my work is not over,” Fontell wrote in an email to supporters and media. She wants the filing of lien documents by the property management group that billed her declared in violation of federal and state debt collection laws, she said in the email.
Fontell has represented herself in the various cases stemming from the disputed bill.
“She presented her case... I don’t know if a lawyer could have put on a better case than she did,” said Richard Schimel, who represented the property management group and the two other defendants in the case, Jeff Gatling, president of the management group, and Todd Hassett, director of properties for the management group. “I commend her for her efforts,” he said.
The case stems from Fontell’s refusal to pay a $236 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 said the bill was unfair and claimed the homeowners’ association was trying to double-bill her. She had paid all of her other bills on time, she said.
The property management group placed a lien on her home which, combined with later liens, attorney fees, and late fees, grew to over $6,000.
In court, Fontell argued that the liens filed against her had damaged her reputation, 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 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.
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 represented 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.
In an interview after the verdict was announced, Schimel said he believed his clients were satisfied with the outcome of the trial.
“[Fontell] may be dissatisfied about the amount but that’s why we have a jury to determine these things,” he said.