HOA lawyer demands ‘royalties’ from elderly blogger

HOA lawyer demands ‘royalties’ from elderly blogger

cover_dadA self-described “citizen journalist” abruptly shut down two websites devoted to Summer Trees West HOA affairs after receiving a letter from an HOA lawyer demanding payment of “royalties” and ordering him to “cease and desist” publishing Association minutes and other documents that are already posted elsewhere online.

“I was sort of stunned when I received the letter. I knew that a few people on the HOA board like to use their lawyer to bully people into submission and silence them,” Springer said. “I guess this shows just how far some people on the board are willing to go to try to silence people they deem to be their critics.”

The letter was sent Sept. 14 and signed by Joel M. McTague, an attorney for a Plantation, Fla., law firm that has been paid more than $10,000 so far this year in connection with litigation concerning liens and other issues associated with 107 Cypress Pond Road and 26 Summer Trees Road.

Springer, who turns 80 in February, called the letter a “frivolous scare tactic” and denies violating any laws.

Nonetheless, he decided to shut down his website due to the strong language in the letter and to spare Association members from having to pay more legal bills from the law firm of Frank Weinberg Black (FWB), which is regarded as an attack dog for HOAs in legal circles.

“The use of the Association’s copyrighted materials without a valid license from the Association is considered copyright infringement in violation of US Copyright Law,” McTague wrote. “Federal law provides that the Association may be entitled to up to $150,000 for each willful act of copyright infringement, temporary and permanent injunctive relief, plus the attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in pursuing an action against the infringers, regardless of your intent or knowledge of whether the Association’s material [was] copyrighted.”

Whether the Association’s minutes are copyrighted is something lawyers could be paid tens of thousands of dollars to debate in court. However, it is uncontroverted that the minutes of the STWHOA meetings are readily available on the Association bookkeeper’s website in a format designed for anyone to easily read and download at will. Snippets of the HOA newsletter, “The Town Crier,” clearly can be published by anyone for news and commentary purposes without permission or payment pursuant to what is known as the “Fair Use Doctrine.”


McTague may be reaching when he claims that the prevailing side in copyright cases can be awarded attorneys’ fees and costs. Attorneys’ fees and costs are rarely awarded in such cases. Most attorneys who take such cases work on a “contingency” basis – which means they would get paid only from any judgment awarded by a federal judge or jury. In other words, were the HOA to bring a copyright suit and win, the legal bills that Association members could be forced to eat could be more than any money award doled out by a federal court. And of course, a jury sympathetic to an almost 80-year-old retired civil servant publishing a blog without compensation could award just $1 to the HOA in damages – assuming the HOA carried out the threat in the letter and assuming the HOA  were to prevail in such a risky lawsuit.

In the letter, the HOA lawyer also complains about Springer’s use of “NEWSOFSTREESWESTHOA.COM” for his website name and Internet domain name. Springer said this grievance made him laugh aloud.

“I paid $35 to the HOA in September and they published an ad in the Town Crier promoting my site. I used

NEWSOFSTREESWESTHOA.com’ in the ad copy and the editor and HOA president approved it and published it,” Springer said. “I wonder if the HOA lawyer knew that when he sent me the letter?”

PAY UP, OR ELSE

In the Sept. 14 letter, McTague demanded that Springer pay an unspecified dollar amount to the HOA as “royalties” within 7 days – or else. The board next meets in public on Oct. 11 and could decide then what action, if any, to take now that the Sept. 21 deadline for Springer to pay has passed.

“The Association demands that you pay royalties to the Association in the amount of $1,000 per use of the Association’s copyrighted materials. The mere removal of the posts is not sufficient to purge yourself of liability on this issue,” the HOA lawyer wrote in the three-page letter.

After offering to negotiate a license allowing Springer to publish the minutes and newsletter for a “competitive and attractive royalty rate,” McTague ends the letter with a warning in all capitalized letters for emphasis: “GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.”

henry_springerSpringer, a widower who lives on Social Security and a small police pension, threw up his hands, shut down his website and informed the Association via e-mail that he had done so. He maintains he done nothing wrong or illegal, and has no intention of paying the thousands of dollars the HOA demanded.

“It’s hush money. They want me to pay them money and hush me up at the same time,” Springer said. “It’s not the textbook definition of extortion, but it sure as hell feels like it.”

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

The HOA’s lawyer may have shut down Hank Springer’s website, but it may have also brought consequences that whomever directed McTague to send the letter (there was no HOA board vote at a public meeting to do so) did not foresee.

Within days of telling his family and neighbors in Summer Trees
West about the letter, his son and neighbor, Association member John Springer, started a Facebook page (facebook.com/STWTRUTHSQUAD) and a companion Twitter account (@STW_Truth_Squad).

At the same time, other Association members who were growing increasingly alarmed at the pace and amount of unbudgeted expenses for lawyers launched this website, summertreesnews.com. This site links directly to Association documents on the HOA bookkeeper’s website, including the governing documents, an incomplete set of minutes and some editions of the Town Crier.  The STWHOA does not have a website of its own and a Facebook page claiming to be the official HOA Facebook page has just a few photos of trees and flowers, but no other content.

 THE TRUTH SQUAD

John Springer, who manages the “STW Truth Squad” page on Facebook, believes that some on the HOA board went after his father because they do not like dissent. He says they do not like Association members asking too many questions about how they operate and whether they are using their positions and the HOA lawyer to settle what essentially are petty disputes.

 “I was shocked when I started paying attention to what a subset of the HOA board has been doing,” said John Springer, a former investigative newspaper reporter who bought the unit next to his father’s on Summer Trees Road in 2010.

“Who authorized the expenditure of HOA money for the lawyer to write this letter? The HOA budgeted $1,800 this year for legal fees but has spent more than $10,000 and the meter is running,” John Springer said. “They might be able to silence my father. At his age, I don’t blame him for shutting down his operation. But hear me clearly: I will put this vital information about the bullying tactics and reckless, un-budgeted spending on lawyers in the hands of each and every HOA association member if I have to go door to door to do it.”

John Springer is finalizing plans this week for an upcoming meeting of all interested HOA members. The date, time and location of the meeting will be announced in a direct mail piece to all 238 homes in the Association, as well as Springer’s STW Truth Squad page on Facebook and its Twitter account, which is automatically fed with his permission into this website.

 EDITOR’S NOTE: Because he bills HOA members by the hour and we all ultimately pay for it, Attorney McTague was not contacted for this Special Report. We will let his letter speak for itself. Should any signed responses reach us at info@summertreesnews.com, we will publish them verbatim if we can authentic authorship. We will not publish unsigned responses or responses purporting to be from “The Board” unless they are signed by an authorized person using their real name.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE HOA LETTER