Florida legislators thought they had finished their work in protecting condominium residents.

Not so fast.

In May, the Legislature passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that will require safety inspections of older buildings. After dawdling for too long, Tallahassee acted effectively after the collapse of a condo tower in Surfside last June 24 that resulted in 98 deaths.

Reporting by the Sun Sentinel, however, shows that unit owners need protection from more than disrepair. They need protection from their own neighbors — and rapacious law firms.

In 2005, Eileen Breitkreutz bought a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in the Boca View condominium. Built in 1972, the modestly priced units (one sold recently for $375,000) lie between the Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean on a quiet street in Boca Raton.

Eleven years ago, Breitkreutz asked her condo board for the association’s financial records. What happened next should terrify every Florida condo owner and outrage every legislator.

Total due: $395,553.85

Eileen Breitkreutz, a condo unit owner at Boca View, on Thursday June 9, 2022 in Boca Raton is stuck with a $400,000 legal bill after losing a years-long court battle that began with a request to inspect her condo board's financial records.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Donald Hafele last month ordered Breitkreutz to pay more than twice the market value of her own condo in a judgment stemming from that simple request. The total amount due in the final judgment: $395,553.85.

This is justice? It looks like an act of intimidation to prevent condo owners from asking questions.

Only about $15,000 would go to the condo association. The rest will go to the Becker law firm (formerly Becker & Poliakoff), which the association hired to fight Breitkreutz.

At a May 10 hearing, Becker’s expert witness claimed that the firm had spent 1,234 hours on Breitkreutz’s case. The hourly rates were $175 for paralegals, $275 for associates and between $310 and $495 for partners. The law firm’s expert witness, attorney Gerald Richman, who told the court that all of those fees were “reasonable and customary,” charged $7,500.

The firm justified its costs by noting “the serious nature of the suit and the aggressive defensive posture.” The judge said the numbers were in line with those of similar South Florida firms. Hafele, a judge since 1999, began as a county court appointee of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

When Breitkreutz sent her request, the association should have notified her when the records were available and given her ample time to inspect them. Instead, as the Sun Sentinel showed, the association gave her a narrow one-day window after the request. Breitkreutz didn’t open the email notification until after the one-day window closed.

Palm Beach Circuit Judge Donald Hafele in an unrelated court case from 2018.

Breitkreutz’s attorney emailed the condo association. Ten days later, the attorney said, the association had not responded. Breitkreutz concluded that she wouldn’t get a second chance, so she went to arbitration.

The arbitrator ruled that the association had “willfully denied” the records. The condo board fought back. Becker sued Breitkreutz on behalf of the association, challenging the arbitrator’s ruling and questioning Bretikreutz’s motives.

A familiar pattern

It’s a familiar pattern. The condo association board president, Diana Kuka, has been similarly confrontational with other unit owners. Pointe Management Group of Boynton Beach is listed as the condo’s property manager.

Whenever the Legislature debates condo laws, the Becker firm is close by. A former House member who proposed condo safety reforms long before the Surfside collapse called the firm “the No. 1 group that would fight me.”

The firm, founded in 1973 in Fort Lauderdale by Alan Becker and Gary Poliakoff out of the trunk of a car, has grown into a huge legal empire in 15 cities in three states.

Kuka has been the condo association’s president since 2007. There’s likely nothing anyone can do to change that except run against her, though her litigation record alone probably would scare away any challenger.

Indeed, Boca View is a litigator’s paradise. In February, an owner sued in federal court over the association’s refusal at the start of the pandemic to allow rental of the unit to an emergency room nurse. The suit alleges discrimination based on potential exposure to COVID-19, which would violate the Fair Housing Act.

Neither Kuka nor representatives for Becker responded to our questions. In an interview with the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Breitkreutz said of Kuka: “The woman is evil,” and her actions amount to “extortion.”

To ‘live by the ocean’

Breitkreutz, a nurse who works at Delray Medical Center, said she will have to declare bankruptcy. She likely will get to keep her condo. A Pittsburgh native, Breitkreutz said, “All I ever wanted to do is live by the ocean.”

For any interested public agency or legislator, there are intriguing leads. Here’s one: County property records list Diana Kuka and Igli Kuka as owners and/or co-owners of nine of Boca View’s 72 units. Breitkreutz said the Kukas are siblings.

From this terribly true story of life in condo hell, legislation should compel associations to turn over records in a reasonable period of time — 30 days or less. The state must protect unit owners from bankruptcy at the hands of vindictive or power-hungry condo board members. This could happen again.

There’s much shame to go around in this story. Shame on Tallahassee if no reform comes from it.