Inexperienced lawyer wins epic courtroom battle in Lake
02 February 2017
of Sullivan Ranch holds a banner that friends greeted her with after
she won an appeal in a lawsuit against Centex Homes, developer at
Sullivan Ranch. (Lauren Ritchie/Sentinel)
“I think this probably might be a
little over Mrs. MacKenzie’s head, to be quite candid. … I will offend
everybody in the room, but this isn’t something that — to be involved
in this kind of litigation at this level, you can’t just walk out and
say that ‘I’ve drafted wills,’ or ‘I’ve done real estate closings’ and
walk into a courtroom and deal with something like this…
…it’s just that she’s not experienced in this area of law and that became obvious to all of us pretty early on.”
—Lake Circuit Judge William Law
Transcript of July 27, 2016 hearing
Three years ago, a Mount Dora attorney who has been a member of the
Florida Bar for 35 years but never really practiced law got annoyed by
the builder-controlled homeowner association at Sullivan Ranch, where
Sara MacKenzie thought that Centex Homes, owner of vacant lots in the
subdivision south of State Road 46, should have been paying its share
for those lots into required reserve funds — fees that today are
estimated at $1 million. She sued.
And so it began.
The battle with Centex, owned by one of the largest homebuilders in
America and represented by a politically high-powered, well-respected
Florida law firm, stretched over three long, painful years in which
MacKenzie, 71, struggled to litigate a complex question in an extremely
specialized area of law. MacKenzie and her bank account were up against
the company owned by PulteGroup, which reported $816 million in pre-tax
earnings in 2015 along with a $2.3 billion reinvestment in growing the
the high personal toil
Over the years since she filed the suit, MacKenzie has lost friends in
the rural community that is perched a hill overlooking Round Lake. She
has been inexplicably opposed by some residents who would directly
benefit if she were able to force Centex to make the reserve
Her suit against the developer sparked pettiness such as “No
trespassing” signs on the lawns of neighbors on both sides of her
duplex. MacKenzie said several women in her subdivision told her she
wasn’t a “real lawyer” and didn’t know what she was doing because she
had practiced for only a few years after her graduation from law school
at the University of San Diego in 1982. They said she didn’t respect
their husbands, who were dealing with Centex and were perfectly
satisfied with the way things were going.
“They hate me now,” she said. “And they were best friends.”
Such criticism is particularly stinging for a woman who dropped out of
high school to marry and have her first baby at 16 and a second four
years later. But MacKenzie persevered.
At the beginning of the case, Lake Circuit Judge William Law threw out
her suit five times before accepting a sixth version that satisfied
him. Centex lawyers from Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed
of Orlando dogged her every misstep in pleadings filed with the court.
MacKenzie’s husband, Ralph, 82, estimated the couple has spent
about $10,000 of their own money on costs alone to fight the case so
At the end of the litigation, Law remarked in open court that the
matter was “a little over Mrs. MacKenzie’s head to be candid,” and he
ruled against her, forcing MacKenzie to take the matter to the 5th
District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach.
Perhaps that panel of three appellate judges thought the matter was a
little over Law’s head. They overturned the critical piece of Law’s
ruling on Dec. 22.
Against all odds, MacKenzie won — and not just for herself.
Writing the unanimous opinion, Chief Judge Jay P. Cohen stated that
Centex’s interpretation of Florida law was “incorrect” and that it
“should not be read to excuse a developer’s otherwise valid obligation
to fund reserves while it controls the HOA.”
Freak out time in Developerland!
Centex lawyer Matthew Brenner from the Lowndes firm quickly filed a
request for the appellate court to “certify” an appeal to the next
highest venue, the Florida Supreme Court. A certification notifies the
higher court that the question is one of “great public importance.”
Brenner argued the appellate ruling would have a “calamitous” financial
impact on developers who might abandon their communities under
construction. He also predicted strife, deteriorating community
infrastructure and “significant” assessments on homeowners.
An unimpressed appellate court just said no. Now there’s a rarity — big developers not getting what they want in Florida.
How much should Centex pay?
Now that the appeals judges have ruled Centex should have contributed
to reserve accounts — that money later pays costs of re-roofing and
painting — the matter returns to Law and the Lake circuit court to
answer this question: How much should Centex pay?
Brenner said in an email, “A trial is still required, as the appellate
court decision remanded the case for further proceedings. We are
confident we will show the court that Centex has fulfilled all
obligations to the residents of Sullivan Ranch.”
MacKenzie’s pleadings say the amount owed is nearly $1.13 million and
no trial is necessary — just a hearing to determine the final amount.
As this dispute returns to court, let’s hope that the focus is on how
much Centex owes Sullivan Ranch residents, not on any clumsiness that
might occur because MacKenzie isn’t a slick, experienced litigator in
the Lowndes tradition. After all, she’s not charging anyone for her
services. She’s representing just herself and her husband.
Justice can’t be achieved when the focus is on playing courtroom
“Gotcha!” instead of getting to the merits of the case. Let’s hope
those in the courtroom do as the appellate court did — set aside minor
procedural matters and look at the heart of the claim.