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CCOC Decision Summary

#08-09, Offen v. Grosvenor Park I Condominium Association (February 15, 2011) (Panel: Fleischer, Alkon, Whelan).

A unit owner filed a request to inspect all the condominium's records relating to its legal expenses for a period of over 4 years.  Under both Maryland law and County law, a unit owner is entitled to inspect and copy condominium records, with certain limited exceptions.

The condominium refused to provide any documents which were the actual legal billings it had received from its attorneys, claiming the documents were protected by the attorney-client privilege, the attorney work-product privilege, and the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  After the owner filed his complaint with the CCOC, the condominium provided several hundred pages of billings but they contained several thousand items that had been redacted.

The hearing panel issued a prehearing order that required the condominium to produce a complete, unredacted copy of all the documents for confidential inspection by the panel alone, together with a chart that explained the condominium's justification for each and every redacted item.  The panel then issued a proposed order in which it ruled upon each and every redacted item, stating whether it must be disclosed or could remain confidential; it stated its reasoning, and it invited both parties to comment on its proposed order and set a hearing to take additional evidence on whether all documents had been provided as well as to hear arguments on the proposed order.  The condominium conceded some rulings and disputed others.  At the hearing there was evidence that some accounting records, not previously produced, were responsive to the unit owner's inspection request.  .

The panel then issued its final order.  In its order, the panel upheld the right of the condominium to redact any information that might disclose the advice given by attorneys to the condominium or the litigation strategy of the attorneys.  However, the panel found that most of the redacted items did not in fact reveal any advice or litigation strategy and were therefore not justified by the facts.  The panel also ordered production of the accounting records to the extent they still existed.

However, the panel also upheld the right of the condominium to withhold from the law firm's invoices the names of those members against whom the condominium was trying to collect unpaid assessments.  The panel held that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) preempted the Maryland Condominium Act insofar as copies of a law firm's own records were concerned.  The FDCPA prohibits a "debt collector", including law firms, from disclosing the names of debtors to the public.  Although the condominium association is not a "debt collector" (it is a creditor), the documents being disclosed were copies of the law firm's own bills to the condominium and the law firm had the duty to comply with the FDCPA and protect certain information from disclosure.

 

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