Villages settles lawsuit, will fund $40 million in recreation upgrades

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel
Published Match 9, 2008

THE VILLAGES - The powerful developer and corporations behind The Villages have agreed in a civil court settlement to pay $40 million over 13 years to cover improvements and repairs to recreation centers, swimming pools and other facilities that make the retirement community alluring.

The class-action lawsuit contended monthly amenity fees paid by every homeowner in the sprawling community of 70,000 residents had been misused by The Villages of Lake-Sumter Inc., the Village Center Community Development District and developer H. Gary Morse.

Under the settlement, the money will replenish depleted accounts used to finance facility improvements and pay pool monitors, after-hours golf ambassadors and Neighborhood Watch staff.

The lawsuit was prompted by residents like Elaine Dreidame, 64, who complained about mildew and mold in the ceiling tiles of the Paradise Recreation Center, where she played bridge twice a week.

Dreidame, who moved to the retirement community in 1999, figured "Florida's Friendliest Hometown" had money set aside to improve its oldest recreational facility.

Well, not enough, she found out.

The retired university administrator from Dayton, Ohio, grew more concerned as she began noting similar, subtle drop-offs in other services throughout the community that she affectionately calls "year-round adult summer camp."

The money is supposed to be used to maintain the golf courses, swimming pools and other comforts that make The Villages a desirable home for active, older adults.

Long-shot lawsuit

The lawsuit seemed unlikely to succeed, according to court records showing that a retired judge and six major law firms from Tallahassee to Miami declined to take it.

But the case concluded last week in Lake County, where Circuit Judge Lawrence Semento approved a settlement agreement that requires the developer to pay about $40 million over the next 13 years to replenish maintenance accounts.

The settlement also requires the defendants to pay $50,000 each to Dreidame and four other named plaintiffs and $6.7 million to the plaintiffs' brother-sister legal team, Dougald McMillan and Carol McMillan Anderson.

Carol Anderson said she took the case because she lives in The Villages.

Her brother, a practicing lawyer for 50 years, was best known for prosecuting organized crime figure Meyer Lansky.

Through their defense lawyers, Stephen Johnson and Archie Lowery, Morse and the other defendants denied any wrongdoing or misappropriation.

"[The developer] has looked at the settlement as an issue of what's good for the community," Johnson said Wednesday in court.

The settlement includes confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses, which prevent the parties from discussing the case or criticizing Morse or The Villages.

'David and Goliath'

Donald Maciejewski, a Jacksonville lawyer who has handled mass-plaintiff air-disaster cases, called the lawsuit a "true David and Goliath" case, citing the defendants' financial strength.

In an affidavit submitted to the judge to justify attorney fees, Maciejewski said the novelty and complexity of the case suggested that the plaintiffs' chances for success were "virtually zero."

He also pointed out that McMillan and Anderson were "a last resort."

Dreidame had said that if the siblings wouldn't take their case, "she was going to drop the issue . . . and get back to enjoying retirement," Maciejewski said.

Anderson praised Morse and his lawyers, saying the settlement proves they have the community's best interest at heart.

Tee-time limits

The settlement also includes other provisions that can be classified as uniquely The Villages, including limits on the number of tee times that can be reserved by the developer's sales staff for prospective customers.

The developer also will provide money to widen six miles of golf-cart paths to better accommodate bicyclists, joggers and roller-skaters.

The agreement also creates a resident-controlled "Amenity Authority Committee" that will have a louder voice in the use of amenity fees.