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Archive for November, 2018

New Florida Law Change Allows Property Owners to Challenge Lapsed Covenants

Posted on: November 30th, 2018

By: Melissa Santalone

A recently enacted section of the Florida Statutes allows property owners to seek court intervention to prevent their community associations from revitalizing lapsed covenants and restrictions as to their parcels. Property owners can commence an action for judicial determination that any revitalization of those covenants or restrictions as to the property owners’ parcels would “unconstitutionally deprive” the property owners of rights or property. Fla. Stat. § 712.12(3), enacted in March and effective as of October 1, 2018, is a new section of the Marketable Record Title Act (MRTA) and allows homeowners to bring these actions until October 1, 2019. Property owners that take advantage of this new right of action can only challenge covenants and restrictions that community associations have allowed to lapse on or before October 1, 2018. If such a property owner is able to obtain a court order or judgment under this section declaring that revitalization of the covenant or restriction would unconstitutionally deprive him or her of rights or property and the covenant or restriction is revived, the covenant or restriction may not alter the rights of the property owner without his or her consent.

This change in the law could result in fascinating litigation in the Florida courts. Under MRTA, community associations’ covenants and restrictions, if not properly preserved or revitalized, are extinguished after 30 years. Therefore, under the new addition to MRTA, it would be possible for a homeowner in a community that has inadvertently let its covenants lapse to go to court and ask that his property not be subject to any community assessments, even if such a covenant imposing them is revived. The end result could leave community associations with fewer resources to manage the same shared property.

With this change in the law, Florida community associations now more than ever need to pay close attention to the age of their covenants and restrictions. Preservation of covenants and restrictions prior to lapse is a relatively simple process in Florida, while the process of revitalization after lapse is more complicated and requires approval from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. It is important to note that the lapse of community covenants and restrictions happens in other jurisdictions as well, like in California and for certain communities in Georgia.

Attorneys in FMG’s HOA National Practice Section can advise you as to whether and how covenants and restrictions can expire, preservation, and revitalization in your area.  For more information, contact Melissa Santalone at [email protected].

Supreme Court Revisits Interplay Between First and Fourth Amendments

Posted on: November 29th, 2018

By: Wes Jackson

Imagine you commit a minor crime and an officer approaches you. The interaction goes south when you call the officer a “pig” and remind him that your tax dollars pay his salary. He then arrests you. Were your constitutional rights violated?

That’s the question the Supreme Court considered Monday, November 26, 2018 when it heard oral arguments in Nieves v. Bartlett. In Nieves, two Alaska State Troopers were patrolling a multi-day ski and snowmobile festival when they decided to investigate some underage drinking. Bartlett, who was intoxicated, intervened and confronted the troopers. The officers arrested Bartlett and put him in a “drunk tank.” He was later released and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The state declined to prosecute the charges due to budgetary reasons. Bartlett sued, alleging his arrest was retaliatory because he refused to assist the officers in their investigation of the minors drinking alcohol.

Retaliatory arrest claims, like the one in Nieves, occur at the intersection of the First and Fourth Amendments: the presence of probable cause bars a Fourth Amendment claim for false arrest, but the circuits are split as to whether probable cause will also bar a First Amendment claim for retaliatory arrest arising from the same incident. Those circuits applying the probable cause bar to retaliatory arrest claims employ a bright-line objective standard that protects the officer from protracted litigation or trial where it is clear (or even arguable) that a reasonable officer could believe the arrestee had committed a crime. Rejecting the probable cause bar to retaliatory arrest claims could subject officers to months or years of litigation probing their subjective intent behind making an arrest—i.e., did the officer arrest the plaintiff for his crime or his speech?

At the Nieves oral argument, the justices sought to find a balance between protecting First Amendment rights while also giving law enforcement officers enough cover to act decisively and make arrests in fast-paced situations. On one hand, Justice Kagan noted the concern that officers might use minor crimes as a pretext to arrest for speech they disagree with, stating “there are so many laws that people can break that police officers generally look the other way, but, you know, you’re saying something that the officer doesn’t much like, so he doesn’t look the other way.” On the other hand, Justice Breyer and other justices noted the obvious concern with the chilling effect that would accompany the possibility of officers being haled into court every time they arrest someone who hurls an insult—officers could be to hesitant to make otherwise appropriate arrests.

One possible solution the justices entertained was to keep the probable cause bar for retaliatory arrests, but to limit its application to situations where there was probable cause for the charge on which the officer made the arrest or other charges upon which the arrestee was soon indicted. Such a solution would keep the probable cause bar for retaliatory arrests but prevent officers from concocting post hoc justifications for the arrest months or years later in a civil rights lawsuit.

The Court should issue an opinion in Nieves v. Bartlett in the coming months. If you have any questions about this case or retaliatory arrest claims more generally, please contact Wes Jackson at [email protected].

Protecting In-House Correspondence from Disclosure: The Troublesome “CC”

Posted on: November 28th, 2018

By: Jake Carroll

Commercial disputes present complex issues of causation—what caused the accident, who is responsible, what is impacting company revenue. But before the dispute even arises, in-house attorneys are frequently copied on correspondence with team members and employees evaluating and offering opinions on causation, performance, and potential costs. Then, when the dispute or accident ends up in litigation, the materials prepared by the employees are sought in discovery.

For example, what if an engineering firm learns that one of its employees improperly installed a part of the anti-corrosion system for a pipeline. The employee’s supervisor prepares an email detailing all instances of improperly installed systems in the last four (4) years by the employee and decides to cc in-house counsel. Is this email protected from disclosure if a lawsuit arises from the improperly installed pipe system?

Claims of privilege and work product are often asserted when an in-house attorney is included as a secondary recipient—or CC—on an email, raising the question of what exactly is covered by the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine. Resolving these issues can be costly in their own right, and have the potential to derail an otherwise straightforward dispute.

While there are some exceptions, the general rule is that the communications where in-house attorneys are only CC’d are not protected from disclosure under either the attorney-client privilege or the work-product doctrine.[1]

The attorney-client privilege protects confidential communications that are sent for the purpose of securing legal advice.[2] However, when an email is neither addressed to the in-house attorney, nor sent directly to the attorney, it is unlikely that the privilege applies.[3] Similarly, the work-product doctrine protects correspondence or reports prepared in anticipation of litigation.[4] When an in-house attorney is only CC’d on correspondence, the emails are neither work performed by the in-house attorney, nor work prepared at the direction of the in-house attorney.[5] Additionally, many of these emails are typically sent prior to litigation and are not protected.

Businesses would do well to remember that simply copying your in-house attorney on an email will not shield its disclosure during discovery. The impact of this fact is far-reaching. In the example above, not only would the other side have an admission regarding the mislaid pipe from the supervisor, the email has also identified other projects where the business may be vulnerable to suit to a plaintiffs’ attorney.

If a company wishes for correspondence to be protected from disclosure, the following tips, though not exhaustive, are helpful:

  1. The sender of the email should direct correspondence to in-house counsel in a separate email—not by CC—and for the express purpose of seeking legal advice on a potential issue. For example, starting the email with “legal advice needed” or “request for legal advice” will go a long way to preserving the privilege and are more effective than “I have a question” or “see below.” Such requests should also be addressed specifically to the in-house attorney or an attorney on the legal team, rather than being directed to other employees with just a cc to the lawyer.
  2. To protect the privilege when using emails, avoid communications with both business and legal purposes as much as possible.
  3. Limit long email chains. Besides being good business practice, in-house counsel should not let privileged discussions continue in a long email chain. Inevitably, as the discussion continues, the topic may stray away from the original question and new people may be added to the email string—risking the privilege protection.

Protecting the attorney–client privilege and work-product privilege requires sound policies and procedures, a properly trained workforce and constant vigilance from the in-house attorney. But business that put procedures in place on the front end will find it well worth their time if and when a dispute arises.

If you need help with this issue, or any other commercial law questions, Jake Carroll practices construction and commercial law, is licensed to practice in Georgia and Florida, and is a member of Freeman Mathis & Gary’s Construction Law and Tort & Catastrophic Loss practice groups. He represents corporations and manufacturers in a wide range of litigation and corporate matters involving breach of contract, business torts, and products liability claims. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

 

[1] Minebea Co. v. Papst, 228 F.R.D. 13, 21 (D.D.C. 2005) (“A corporation cannot be permitted to insulate its files from discovery simply by sending a ‘cc’ to in-house counsel.”) (quoting USPS v. Phelps Dodge Refining Corp., 852 F.Supp. 156, 163-64 (E.D.N.Y.1994)).
[2] See e.g. Upjohn Co. v. U. S., 449 U.S. 383, 394-95 (1981).
[3] Id. at 394; In re Seroquel Prods. Liability Litig., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39467, 2008 WL 1995058, at *4 (May 7, 2008) (explaining that “[t]here is general agreement that the protection of the privilege applies only if the primary or predominate purpose of the attorney-client consultation is to seek legal advice or assistance”) (quoting Paul R. Rice, Attorney-Client Privilege in the United States § 7:5).
[4] The work-product privilege is derived from the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Hickman v. Taylor, 29 U.S. 495, 510-11, 67 S. Ct. 385, 393 (1947), and is codified in Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3).
[5] See Cox v. Adm’r U.S. Steel & Carnegie, 17 F.3d 1386, 1421-22 (11th Cir. 1994), opinion modified on reh’g, 30 F.3d 1347 (11th Cir. 1994) (recognizing that the work-product privilege protects from discovery “materials that reflect an attorney’s mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal theories” that were prepared in anticipation of litigation and intended to remain confidential); cf. Hickman, 329 U.S. at 511, 67 S.Ct. at 393; Upjohn, 449 U.S. at 399, 101 S.Ct. at 687.

HOA’s Situated in California’s Coastal Zone May Not Unilaterally Ban Airbnbs

Posted on: November 27th, 2018

By: Frank Olah

In the past few years, online booking sites such as Airbnb have predominated the short-term vacation rental market. As a result, many of California’s traditional vacation destinations have seen a surge in short-term rental (STR) activity causing cities and municipalities to issue rules in an effort to regulate this new type of market without alienating full-time residents.

For communities located in California’s coastal zone, the Coastal Commission has assisted with the development of Local Coastal Program (LCP) vacation rules. It has been the Commission’s position that rules affecting short-term vacation rentals in the coastal zone must be done in the context of a LCP and/or be authorized pursuant to a coastal development permit (CDP).

The coastal zone is an enormous area larger than the State of Rhode Island that varies from several hundred feet to five miles on land and includes a three-mile-wide band of ocean. Implementation of California’s Coastal Act (Pub. Resources Code § 30000 et seq.) policies is accomplished through LCPs that must be prepared by the 15 counties and 61 cities located in the coastal zone, which are then submitted to the Commission for approval. An LCP includes a land use plan. Development in the coastal zone may not commence until a CDP is issued by the Commission or a local government that has a certified LCP.

Unsurprisingly, the influx of Airbnb renters in common interest developments has raised the question of whether and to what extent HOA Boards may regulate or outright prohibits STRs. Generally, California HOA’s have the right to restrict short-term rentals, set minimum rental periods, and impose reasonable fees; and the Board’s decisions are entitled to deference by the courts.(See, Watts v. Oak Shores Community Assn. (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 466.)

However, the issue has arisen as to whether HOA’s located in coastal zones under the Commission’s jurisdiction may similarly regulate STRs. This year California’s Second District Court of Appeal found that HOA’s located in the coastal zone do not enjoy similar discretion and deference. In Greenfield v. Mandalay Shores (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 896, the court held that the decision to ban or regulate short term rentals, such as Airbnb’s, must be made by the City and the Coastal Commission, and not the HOA.

In Greenfield, owners in the Mandalay Shores Community Association, located in the Oxnard Shores Coastal Zone, sought to enjoin enforcement of the HOA’s resolution banning STRs because they argued the ban constituted a “development” under the Coastal Act requiring a CDP and the HOA had failed to obtain the permit before adopting the ban.

The court observed that for decades non-residents had rented beach houses at Oxnard Shores on a short-term basis. The certified LCP for the City of Oxnard did not address STRs. In 2016, the City announced it was considering drafting a STR ordinance to regulate the licensing and operation of STRs. In June 2016, Mandalay Shores, a mutual benefit corporation, adopted a resolution banning STRs for less than 30 days and imposed significant fines on homeowners who violated the ban. In August 2016, the Commission notified Mandalay Shores that the STR ban was a “development” requiring a CDP.

The issue before the Greenfield court therefore was whether such a STR ban constitutes a “development” under the Coastal Act requiring HOA’s to obtain a CDP. “Development” is broadly defined to include any “change in the density or intensity of use of land.”  Courts have given that term an expansive interpretation, not restricting it merely to activities that physically alter the land or water.

The court then analogized the STR ban to a locked gate or posting “no trespassing” signs to prevent access to a beach. The court reasoned that one of the goals of the Coastal Act is to maximize public access to the beach. By banning short-term vacation rentals, an HOA created a “monetary barrier” to the beach.

The court found that the STR ban changed the intensity of use and access to the homes in the Oxnard Coastal Zone because before the ban, STRs were commonplace in Oxnard Shores. Just to be sure there was no misunderstanding, the court held: “STR bans are a matter for the City and Coastal Commission to address. STRs may not be regulated by private actors where it affects the intensity of use or access to single-family residences in a coastal zone. The question of whether a seven-day house rental is more of a neighborhood problem than a 31-day rental must be decided by City and the Coastal Commission, not a homeowner’s association.”

The Greenfield court relied on the fact that the STR ban at issue affected 1,400 units that had historically been used for short-term rentals. While this fact may limit application of the case to new developments or those which did not historically have STRs, the Coastal Commission’s policy is to require cooperation from the HOAs in obtaining CDPs according to the local coastal plan where the HOA is situated in a coastal zone. Therefore, HOAs contemplating STR bans must work with their local government and the Commission to develop suitable regulations or risk litigation by HOA members hoping to cash in on Airbnb’s popularity.

If you need help with this or any other HOA related question, Frank Olah practices HOA law in California and Washington and is a member of Freeman Mathis & Gary’s HOA National Practice Section. He can be reached at [email protected]. For information regarding governmental regulation of STRs, please contact Dana Maine in Freeman, Mathis & Gary’s Government Law National Practice Team at [email protected].

Court Rules No Coverage For Pa. Law Firm’s Malpractice Suit

Posted on: November 26th, 2018

By: Barry Brownstein

An insurer does not have to cover a Pennsylvania law firm in a professional malpractice suit that a client filed after the firm allegedly used privileged information to benefit its attorneys’ side business in a real estate development.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted Westport Insurance Corp.’s motion for summary judgment in its case against Hippo Fleming & Pertile Law Offices (“HFP”) and attorney Charles Wayne Hippo Jr., agreeing with the insurer that the dispute over a shopping center development was exempted from coverage by the outside businesses exclusion in the firm’s professional liability policy.

Gregory Morris and Morris Development, one of HFP’s longtime clients, alleged that HFP had used information disclosed to the firm under attorney-client privilege to benefit a project by its side businesses, Templar Development and Templar Elmerton. Westport’s insurance policy contained a clear and unambiguous exclusion for lawsuits stemming from any of the policyholders’ outside businesses, and Hippo had not disclosed his involvement in the Templar companies when applying for the policy.

HFP argued that since the underlying lawsuit’s first two allegations of legal malpractice and breach of contract stemmed from the firm’s attorney-client relationship to Morris, Westport had a duty to defend them under the professional liability policy. The court, however, said it was Hippo’s dual role that gave rise to the claims against him.

The court emphasized that the plain language of the complaint in the underlying suit entirely discredits defendants’ argument that counts I and II are based solely on HFP’s role as Morris’s attorney. Counts I and II of the complaint allege that Hippo committed legal malpractice and breach of contract by simultaneously acting as Morris’s attorney and a competing real-estate developer. Therefore, the court held that Westport has no duty to defend because each claim in the underlying suit falls unambiguously within the policy’s outside business exclusion.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Barry Brownstein at [email protected].