How Transition Affects the Statute of Limitations Analysis
The novel nature of condominium ownership, specifically the transition process, affects the statute of limitations analysis. The Planned Real Estate Development Full Disclosure Act requires that the developer of a condominium staff the board of trustees of an association and control the affairs of the association until seventy-five percent of the units in the development are sold. During that period of control, the developer is under a fiduciary responsibility to the association to act in the best interest of the association and its membership. Pragmatically speaking, however, a developer-controlled association is much different than a homeowner controlled association. Even if certain problems with construction are discovered during developer-control, it cannot be realistically expected that the developer-controlled board would take steps to investigate those defects and litigate, on behalf of the association, if necessary. Therefore, equity and common sense suggest that the earliest the statute of limitations clock could begin to run against an association for construction defect claims is the date of transition, at which time the unit owners take control of the board of trustees for the first time.
To this end, our courts recognize the inherent unfairness in allowing statutes of limitations to run against an association while the developer controls its board. The reason is clear – individual unit owners lack standing to assert claims for faulty construction affecting the common elements prior to transition. Thus, equity cannot support the running of limitation periods against an association that legally cannot assert its rights during the period of developer control.
In New Jersey, the Law Division decision in Terrace Condominium Ass'n v. Midlantic Nat. Bank, 268 N.J. Super. 488 (Law Div. 1993), clearly stands for the proposition that statutes should be tolled when the unit owners of a condominium are not in control of the Board. In Terrace, a condominium association brought an action against a bank that took over construction of the building. At the time the bank took over, some of the units had been sold, but construction was still continuing. Construction was later completed under the bank’s watch, and almost immediately its residents experienced numerous problems with water infiltration into their units. Midlantic, the bank/owner in question, engaged an engineer to document the problems and provide a solution. Most of these repairs were “short-lived or improper repairs to the most significant of the  problems and generally had the effect of concealing the true causes of the problems.”
Transition occurred and the Association filed suit against Midlantic. Midlantic raised a statute of limitations defense as to several of the building warranty claims. The court found that because the bank had effectuated repairs, the statute of limitations did not run against the unit owners because they relied upon the bank to effectuate the proper repairs while in control of the Association. Additionally, the court found that, notwithstanding the repairs undertaken by Midlantic, the “unit owners had no control of the Association, and should not be bound by the period of time thereto.” This is true “even if each unit owner could have sued the Bank while the Bank was in control of the Association” and that “it may well be that ordinarily the right to make such claims should be tolled or deferred until the unit owners control the association.”
There is also an unpublished decision by the Appellate Division that directly addresses a condominium Association’s ability to control its own destiny. The Appellate Division decision captioned Skyline Condominium Assoc. v. Falkin, No. A-3913-98, A-3860-98, A-3792-98 (App. Div. September 10, 2001), is right on point. In the Skyline opinion, the Appellate Division was faced with the issue of “determining the first date that a plaintiff obtained the enforceable right to institute and maintain an action regarding the controversy” for the purposes of the entire controversy doctrine.
Recognizing the difficulty in running the statute of limitations clock while the individual unit owners are not in control of their association’s board, the Skyline Court concluded that the statute of limitations on an action for construction defects by a condominium association against a sponsor should be tolled until the unit owners control the association.