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Archive for the ‘HOA’ Category

Facebook And Association Criticism: How To Address Unfounded Allegations Against An Association And Its Board

Posted on: October 12th, 2018

By: Jonathan Romvary

How far can a Board go in fighting against what they believe is unfair homeowner criticism? Can they publish a formal response to unfounded allegations? How should Associations address online criticism on unofficial Facebook groups created by dissatisfied homeowners?

These issues were partially addressed in a recent unpublished California Appeals Court decision in Kulick v. Leisure Village Association (2018). Kulick involved two consecutive lawsuits between a homeowner who was anonymously publishing an unofficial newsletter that was highly critical of his Homeowner’s Association, the Association’s Board and its attorneys. Unfortunately for the homeowner, the HOAs rules specifically prohibited the dissemination of anonymous publications to the Association’s members and the Association successfully filed suit against the homeowner for breaching the Association’s covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) and was awarded more than $125,000.00 including punitive damages.

After losing his appeal, and apparently not learning from the prior lawsuit, the homeowner began republishing his anonymous newsletter criticizing the Association’s Board, this time asserting that the Board and its officers committed perjury, extortion, obstruction of justice, racketeering, and lying and cheating. The Association’s attorneys responded to the most recent allegations by distributing an official letter to all of the homeowners addressing the allegations as a “reckless communication” containing “unfounded, inaccurate, and spiteful allegations” against the Association and detailing the prior lawsuit against the homeowner. Feeling attacked by the HOA, the homeowner filed a lawsuit against the Association for, among other things, defamation. The HOA defended itself saying its actions were protected under California’s anti-SLAPP laws which are designed to protect defendants who have been sued for acts in furtherance of a constitutionally protected right of free speech or petition. The trial court agreed, finding that the Association’s letter constituted “protected activity” as a public writing relating to an issue of public interest to the Association’s homeowners’, i.e. the lawsuit between the Association and homeowner. Ultimately the California Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

From Kulick, it is clear that Associations may respond to individual criticisms that are not legally permissible (e.g. false assertions of fact, etc.) and have certain rights against defamation published by its members. However, it remains unclear to what extent Associations can restrict alternative forms of publications, such as Facebook community groups or anonymous Twitter accounts. In the age of Facebook, where publishing and distribution is free and easy, Associations must remain vigilant. False accusations and anonymous publications can cause significant disruption to the operation and reputation of an Association. Associations should be alert for publications containing false assertions or publications that purport to be official communication and should address any statements that defame the association, its board of directors, managing agent, or employees.

If you have any questions on how your Association can be proactive and protect itself against unofficial homeowner publications or would like more information, please contact Jonathan Romvary at [email protected].

New Jersey Appellate Court Affirms Association’s Right to Enforce Code of Conduct

Posted on: October 1st, 2018

By: Mark Stephenson

The close-set nature of condominium association communities lends to the adoption of codes of conduct as an effective way to promote efficient dispute resolution and unit owner civility. Such disputes are a too-fruitful source of litigation. Recently, in Chassman v. Longview at Montville Condominium Association, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division affirmed the right of a community association to enforce its code of conduct and approved the way in which the association did so. Docket No. A-1660-16Te, 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1325 (June 7, 2018)

Plaintiff Jacqueline Chassman lived with her son as a unit owner at the Longview condominium. On February 3, 2014, Chassman and her son were involved in an altercation with an employee of the snow removal company hired by the Association. During the altercation, the son allegedly threw a punch at the snow removal employee. Learning of the incident, the Association sent a “Cease and Desist Order, Notice of Fine” letter to Chassman, advising her that her son’s conduct was a violation of the Association’s code of conduct, resulting in a $100.00 fine.

The Association’s by-laws afforded unit owners with a dispute resolution procedure, which Chassman used to request a hearing to dispute the allegations regarding the incident. The Association’s judicial committee held a hearing and Chassman was afforded the opportunity to testify, call and cross-examine witnesses and present evidence. Based on the record evidence before it, the committee concluded that the evidence showing Chassman’s son had punched the snowplow operator was credible, the conduct violated the code of conduct and increased the fine to $150.00. The committee issued a written decision that Chassman appealed to the Association’s board, which affirmed the original decision. Chassman refused to pay the fine, causing her membership privileges to be suspended. As a result, she was unable to use the condominium’s common facilities, including its clubhouse and swimming pool.

In May 2015, Chassman filed suit against the Association, alleging, among other things, that the code of conduct was invalid, the Association’s dispute resolution procedure was unlawful, and the Board had breached its fiduciary duties owed to her as well seeking $8,500.00 in damages plus interest and costs. The trial court granted summary judgment in the Associations’ favor, holding that its actions, and those of the Board and the Committee in resolving the dispute were authorized by the by-laws. Chassman appealed. In affirming summary judgment and dismissal, the Appellate Division made clear the Association’s broad right to determine and enforce appropriate rules of conduct and impose penalties for violations, a holding helpful to Associations coping daily with vexing and often highly-personalized disputes.

The appellate court observed that a condominium association’s authority is found in the New Jersey Condominium Act and its by-laws. Such by-laws allow an association to establish a method to adopt, amend and enforce reasonable administrative rules and regulations that the association and its board are responsible to enforce, including reasonable fines, assessments and late fees on unit owners as the by-laws may authorize. In this matter, the Association’s by-laws empowered the Board to adopt rules and regulations necessary for operation and use of the property, including rules and regulations regarding the conduct of unit owners and persons residing in their units. The Association’s by-laws expressly authorized the Board to impose a penalty for violations of the code of conduct and suspend unit owners from membership privileges when they fail to pay a duly-imposed penalty. Finally, the appeals court found that the Association’s dispute resolution process fairly addressed Chassman’s claims. Eventually, Chassman paid the fine and her privileges were restored.

Disputes involving condominium associations, their board and committee members, unit owners and residents are often time-consuming, burdensome and costly. Effective dispute resolution procedures and well thought-out codes of conduct can help resolve matters more efficiently and quickly.

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

Federal Court Finds Exclusions in HOA GL Policies Applicable to Wrongful Death Suit

Posted on: September 7th, 2018

By: Peter Catalanotti

Colony Insurance issued a commercial general liability policy to The Courtyards at Hollywood Station Homeowners Association Inc. (“HOA”) that operates an apartment complex in Florida. Great American Alliance Insurance issued an umbrella policy to the HOA.

Two tenants were killed in their sleep by carbon monoxide poisoning at a unit in the complex.

The mother of one of the tenants filed a wrongful death suit in state court alleging that the deaths were caused by a car fumes that traveled through the HVAC of the complex.

The insurance carriers filed a declaratory relief lawsuit in federal court arguing that they are not obligated to cover the wrongful death suit because of a total pollution exclusion.

Both policies contain an exclusion that the policy does not provide for coverage for “bodily injury which would not have occurred in whole or part but for the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of pollutants at any time.”

The exclusion contains an exception whereby it does not apply to bodily injury caused by “smoke, fumes, vapor or soot produced by or originating from equipment that is used to heat, cool or dehumidifier the building.”

The HOA argued that the exception should apply because the carbon monoxide seeped through the AC vents.

In July 2018, the Court granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment.  The Court found that the complaint “only lists the motor vehicle left running in the garage as a potential source of the carbon monoxide, and the Court cannot infer any other sources to create a duty to defend” (emphasis added).

According to the Court,

Since the source is unknown, Defendants would have the Court find that the carbon monoxide may have been produced by or originated from the building’s heating, cooling, or dehumidifying equipment, so the Exception could potentially apply. However, Plaintiffs’ duty to defend Courtyards HOA cannot arise from an inference that the carbon monoxide could have been produced by, or originated from, equipment used to heat, cool, or dehumidify the Unit.

The Court ultimately found that the facts alleged do not fall within the exception. Therefore, the carriers had no duty to defend in the underlying wrongful death action.

Colony Insurance Co. et al. v. The Courtyards at Hollywood Station Homeowners Association Inc. et al., Case #17-62467, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

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

Lions, Tigers, and… Peacocks? How to Handle Requests for Emotional Support Animals

Posted on: April 16th, 2018

By: Christopher M. Curci

Many HOA’s with a “no pets” policy struggle to properly handle requests from unit owners to have emotional support animals at the property.  Governing Boards have to balance the needs of the unit owner making the request with the competing desire of other unit owners to enforce the Association’s “no pets” policy.  We are often asked questions such as, “Do we have to allow this?” “What information can we request from the unit owner?” and, “Can we impose limitations on where the animal can go?”  Complicating matters is that the law regarding emotional support animals is broadly written and largely unsettled by the courts.

To start, emotional support animals (or “ESA’s”) are different than service animals.  A service animal is a dog that has been specifically trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability, such as a seeing eye dog.  By contrast, ESA’s provide emotional support and are not required to have any specific training.  Any animal can be considered an ESA.  In one extreme example, an airline passenger attempted to bring her emotional support peacock on an airplane.  This ruffled United Airlines feathers, who refused to allow the peacock on the plane.

The nuances of the law can be difficult to follow.  A unit owner is not required to produce a doctor’s note to verify his or her medical needs – even a letter from a social worker could suffice.  But, if a disability is “readily apparent,” then the Association cannot ask the unit owner to provide any documentation at all.  Further, while an HOA can adopt formal procedures for requesting an ESA, it cannot deny a unit owner’s request merely because he or she failed to follow those formal procedures.  The Association cannot charge a fee to the unit owner for having an ESA, but the unit owner is responsible for any financial damage caused by the animal.  Maybe the ESA can go in common areas, but maybe not.  Confused?  You should be.

There is no “one size fits all” answer to these questions.  We have successfully defended HOA’s that have denied requests for an ESA or have imposed various restrictions on where an ESA can go.  But, each situation is unique and depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the situation.  HOA’s should be mindful that ESA requests can be legal landmines if not handled properly.  The Department of Justice has fined HOA’s $25,000 – $45,000 for Fair Housing Act violations.  Lawsuits and fines can and should be avoided with proper legal advice.

Christopher M. Curci, Esq. is member of Freeman, Mathis, & Gary’s HOA Practice Group and regularly advises and defends HOA’s in housing related disputes.  He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 267-758-6013.

Homeowners’ Associations: Banning Short Term Rentals May Violate California Coastal Act

Posted on: April 9th, 2018

By: Jeffrey R. Cluett

The California Court of Appeal overturned a denial of a preliminary injunction of a homeowners’ association resolution banning short term rentals (“STR”).  It found that appellants made a prima facie case that the ban violated the California Coastal Act, which requires a permit for any “development” that changes “the intensity of use or access to land in a coastal area.”  Greenfield v. Mandalay Shores Cmty. Ass’n (2018) 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 258, **1-2.

Mandalay Shores is a development in the Oxnard Coastal Zone.  Id., *2.  For decades, non-residents have rented homes there on a short-term basis.  Id.  In June 2016, Mandalay Shores Community Association (“Association”) adopted a resolution banning STRs for less than 30 days.  Id. at *3.  In August 2016, the Coastal Commission advised the Association that the ban was a “development” under the Coastal Act requiring a coastal development permit.  Thereafter, the Greenfields, who own a residence at Mandalay Shores, sued for declaratory and injunctive relief.  Id. at *4.  The trial court denied the Greenfields’ ex parte application for a temporary restraining order and motion for preliminary injunction, finding that the STR ban was not a “development” within the California Coastal Act.   Id. at *5.

The Court of Appeal disagreed.  It noted that the California Coastal Act intends to “[m]aximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities to the coastal zone consistent with sound resources conservation principles and constitutionally protected right of property owners.”  Id. (citation omitted).  “Development” includes any change in the density or intensity of use of the land.  Id.  The courts interpret “development” expansively to respect the Coastal Act’s mandate that it be liberally construed.  Id. at **5-6.  Accordingly, courts have held that closing and locking a gate that is usually open to the public is a “development,” as is posting “no trespassing” signs on a parcel used to access the beach.  Id. at 6.

The court found that the Greenfields made a prima facie showing to issue a preliminary injunction staying enforcement of the STR ban until trial.  Id. at *8.  The court therefore ordered the trial court to enter a new order granting appellant’s motion for a preliminary injunction.  Id.  The key takeaway for Associations with homes with beach access, therefore, is that changing regulations concerning who can rent those homes may fall afoul of the California Coastal Act.

This case is set for a Status Conference on May 21, 2018, where it will presumably be set for trial; the November 6, 2017 trial had been vacated pending appeal.  At trial, the case will turn on whether the STR ban is a “development” that would result in “a change in intensity of use or access.”

Despite the Court of Appeals ruling, the Association could yet prevail.  With the ban, residents and long-term renters would have beach access.  Therefore, that precluding short-term renters from renting may not be a “development” that “results in a change in the intensity of use or access to land in a coastal area” because residents and long-term renters would have beach access.  The question, therefore, is whether the California Coastal Act allows an Association to determine which people may have beach access.  Because this is a different situation from posting “no trespassing” signs or closing and locking a gate, which seeks to bar all beach access, the court may come to a different conclusion.

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