July 28, 2017
Freedom of speech is a hot topic in community associations. Some of these First Amendment disputes concern the freedom of a property owner to display flags, signs or symbols on their property in the face of board opposition. Conflict between association leadership and members over free speech also spreads into cyberspace. One such case recently made its way up to Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals. On July 21, 2017, the appellate judges reversed part of the trial court’s ruling in favor of the association. Howard Adam Fox had a bad relationship with certain directors, managers and other residents of The Hamptons at MetroWest Condominium Association. Several lessons here for anyone who communicates about associations on the internet.
The July 21, 2017 appeals opinion does not describe the social media communications and blog posts that gave rise to the dispute. I imagine that they consisted of personal attacks that may have been alleged to contain slanderous material. The details are left out of the opinion, probably with a sensitivity towards the persons discussed by Mr. Fox online. In general, I do not like the spreading of false, slanderous statements in personal online attacks. To the extent that Fox had legitimate grievances about goings on at the Hamptons at MetroWest, the character of his criticisms seems to have eclipsed any merit. There are usually better ways of solving problems than angrily venting them in online forums.
The board filed a complaint seeking a court order prohibiting Mr. Fox from, “engaging in a continuous course of conduct designed and carried out for purposes of harassing, intimidating, and threatening other residents, the Association, and its representatives.” The association alleged Mr. Fox violated the governing documents of the condominium by his blog posts and social media activity. The court granted an ex parte injunction prohibiting the alleged wrongful conduct. This means that the judge initially considering the case did not wait for Mr. Fox to make a response to the lawsuit. Later, Mr. Fox and the board reached a written settlement wherein Fox agreed to cease certain activities. The final order in the court case incorporated the terms of the settlement. Making terms of the settlement a part of the final order means that the association does not have to start its lawsuit all over again to enforce the deal. They just need to bring a motion for contempt if Fox violates the order. Howard Fox represented himself and did not have an attorney in the trial court and appellate litigation.
Soon thereafter, the association filed a motion for contempt, alleging that Fox violated the settlement and final order. In the contempt proceeding, the trial court went further than simply enforcing the terms of the settlement. The judge forbade Fox from posting or circulating anything online about any residents, directors, managers, employees, contractors or anyone else at the Hamptons. The judge required him to take down all current posts. If someone asked him on social media about his community, and he wanted to respond, he would have to call them on the telephone.
Fox appealed this contempt order on the grounds that it violated his First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth District Court of Appeals agreed. The trial court’s ruling was what is called a “prior restraint.” The contempt order did not punish him for past wrongful actions. It looked permanently into his future. Prior restraints against speech are presumptively unconstitutional. Temporary restraining orders and injunctions are “classic examples” of prior restraints.
The appellate court focused on the public nature of the type of speech the lower court order forbade. This makes sense. While an association is private, it is a community nonetheless. There is no real conceptual difference between online communications and other types of speech. Matters of political, religious or public concern do not lose their protected status because the content is insulting, outrageous or emotionally distressing. In a condominium, many matters of community concern could easily be characterized as political, religious or public. Federal, state or local rulemaking may impact the common business within the association. While community associations are “private clubs,” the things that members communicate about are mostly public in the same sense as town or city ward communities. To paraphrase this opinion, “hate speech” is protected by the constitution, unless certain very limited exceptions apply, such as obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement to violence, true threats, etc.
This Florida appellate court found that the trial court violated Fox’s First Amendment rights when it ordered the “prior restraint” against him making any posting of any kind online related to his community. On appeal, the court preserved the rulings finding contempt for violation of the settlement agreement. So, Fox must still comply with the terms of the settlement. The case will go back down for further proceedings unless there is additional appellate litigation. Nerd-out further on the constitutional law issues in this case by reading the useful Volokh Conspiracy blog post on the Washington Post’s website.
The appeals court did not find that any covenants, bylaws, settlements, or other association agreements violated the First Amendment. This opinion does not mean that people cannot waive their rights in entering a private contractual relationship with each other.
Usually, only “state actors” can be found to violate the Constitution. An association is not a “state actor” because it is not really governmental. Here, the “state actor” in the constitutional violation was the trial-level court and not the association. What difference does it make? Ultimately, the courts, review the validity of board actions, determine property rights and enforce covenants. The association board requested relief that apparently lacked support in the covenants or the settlement agreement. To protect their rights, owners must understand when their board is doing something or asking for relief outside of its contractual authority.
There is one final point that the court opinion and the Volokh Conspiracy blog do not discuss which I want my readers to appreciate. Owners of properties in HOAs do not simply have a right to communicate with each other and the board. They have an obligation. The covenants, bylaws and state statutes provide for the board to be elected by the members. Members can amend governing documents by obtaining a requisite of community support. The non-director membership is supposed to be an essential part of the governance of the association. If the members and directors do not have an effective means to communicate with each other, then the community cannot function properly. Community associations can have thousands of members and residents. The may cover the acreage like that of a town or small city. The internet, in both password protected and public sites provides a convenient way for information and messages to be shared. Limits on an owner’s ability to communicate with her board or other parties to the “contract” prejudices her rights under the governing documents. I do not like covenants or bylaws that limit an owner’s ability to obtain information or communicate concerns within the governance of the association. Donie Vanitzian recently published a column in the LA Times entitled, “Freedom of Speech Doesn’t End Once You Enter a Homeowner Association.” She discusses proposed California legislation to enshrine owners’ rights to assemble and communicate with each other about community concerns. Ms. Vanitzian makes an important point that because speech may be deemed “political” should not justify management suppression. Having rights to participate in the meetings of one’s HOA without the right to talk about what is going on is like owning land deprived of any right of way or easement to the highway. While the new Florida opinion does not discuss this point, it is consistent with the basic values of the First Amendment.
For Further Reading:
July 20, 2017
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently wrote in an opinion that, “Property rights are necessary to preserve freedom, for property ownership empowers persons to shape and to plan their own destiny in a world where governments are always eager to do so for them.” Murr v. Wisconsin, 198 L.Ed.2d 497, 509 (U.S. Jun. 23, 2017). This principle goes beyond the eminent domain issues in Murr v. Wisconsin. Many HOAs and condominiums boards or property managers are eager to make decisions for (or ignore their duties to) owners. In the old days, legal enforcement of restrictive covenants was troublesome and uncertain. In recent decades, state legislatures made new rules favoring restrictive covenants. Sometimes owners seek to do something with their property that violates an unambiguous, recorded covenant. I don’t see that scenario as the main problem. What I dislike more is community associations breaching their specific obligations to owners, as enshrined in governing documents or state law. Is the ability to enforce the covenants or law mutual? Are legal remedies of owners and HOAs equitable?
Why HOAs Wanted the Power to Fine:
Take an example. Imagine a property owner decides that it would be easier to simply dump their garbage in the backyard next to a HOA common area than take it to the landfill. Let’s assume that does not violate a local ordinance. Or substitute any other example where a property owner damages the property rights of others and the problem cannot be solved by a single award of damages. Before legislatures adopted certain statutes, the association would have to bring a lawsuit against the owner, asking the court to grant an injunction against the improper garbage dumping. This requires a demand letter and a lawsuit asking for the injunction. The association would have to serve the owner with the lawsuit. The owner would have an opportunity to respond to the lawsuit and the motion for the injunction. An injunction is a special court remedy that requires special circumstances not available in many cases. The party seeking it must show that they cannot be made whole only by an award of damages. The plaintiff must show that the injunction is necessary and would be effective to solve the problem. The legal standard for an injunction is higher than that for money damages, but it is not unachievably high. Courts grant injunctions all the time. However, the injunction requires the suit to be filed and responded to and the motion must be set for a hearing. Sometimes judges require the plaintiff to file a bond. Injunction cases are quite fact specific. The party filing the lawsuit must decide whether to wait for trial to ask for the injunction (which could be up to one year later) or to seek a “preliminary” or “temporary” injunction immediately. If the judge grants the injunction against the “private landfill,” the defendant may try to appeal to the state supreme court during these pretrial proceedings. These procedures exist because property right protections run both ways. Those seeking to enjoin the improper dumping have a right, if not a duty, to promote health and sanitation. Conversely, the owner would have a due process right to avoid having judges decide where she puts her trash on her own property. If the court grants the injunction, the judge does not personally supervise the cleanup of the dumping himself. If an order is disobeyed, the prevailing party may ask for per diem monetary sanctions pending compliance. That money judgment can attach as a lien or be used for garnishments. These common law rules have the effect of deterring the wrongful behavior. This also deters such lawsuits or motions absent exigent circumstances. Owners best interests are served by both neighbors properly maintaining their own property and not sweating the small stuff.
Giving Due Process of Court Proceedings vs. Sitting as both Prosecutor and Judge:
If association boards had to seek injunctions every time they thought an owner violated a community rule, then the HOAs would be much less likely to enforce the rules. The ease and certainty of enforcement greatly defines the value of the right. Boards and committees do not have the inherent right to sit as judges in their own cases and award themselves money if they determine that an owner violated something. That is a “judicial” power. Some interested people lobbied state capitals for HOAs to have power to issue fines for the violation of their own rules. To really give this some teeth, they also got state legislatures to give them the power to record liens and even foreclose on properties to enforce these fines.
Statutory Freeways Bypass the Country Roads of the Common Law:
Let’s pause for a second and pay attention to what these fine, lien & foreclosure statutes accomplish. The board can skip over this process of litigating up to a year or more over the alleged breach of the covenants or rules. Instead, the board can hold its own hearings and skip ahead to assessing per diem charges for the improper garbage dumping or whatever other alleged infraction. Instead of bearing the burden to plead, prove and persevere, they can fast track to the equivalent of the sanctions portion of an injunction case. Instead of enjoying her common law judicial protections, the owner must plead, file and prove her own lawsuit challenging the board’s use of these statutory remedies. Do you see how this shifts the burden? Of course, the HOA’s rule must meet the criteria of being valid and enforceable. In Virginia, the right to fine must be in the covenants. The statute must be strictly complied with. But the burden falls on the owner to show that the fast track has not been complied with.
Statehouse lobbying and clever legal writing of new covenants has helped the boards and their retinue. Let’s take a moment to see what remedies the owner has. Imagine reversed roles. The board decided that they could save a lot of money if they dumped garbage from the pool house onto the common area next to an owner’s property. The board ignores the owners’ request to clean and maintain that part of the common area. Let’s assume that the governing documents require the board to maintain the common area and do not indemnify them against this kind of wrongful action. The owner can sue for money damages. If the case allows, the owner may pursue an injunction against the board to clean up the land and stop dumping trash. The owner must follow the detail-oriented procedures for seeking an injunction. The owner does not have a fast-track remedy to obtain a lien against any property or bank accounts held by the board.
Fine Statutes Should be Legislatively Repealed:
In my opinion, community association boards and owners should both be subject to the same requirements to enforce restrictive covenants. If state legislatures repealed their fine and foreclosure statutes, the boards would not be left without a remedy. They would not go bankrupt. Chaos would not emerge. They would simply have to get in line at the courthouse and play by the same rules as other property owners seeking to protect their rights under the covenants or common law.
“But Community Association Lawsuits are a Disaster:”
Many of my readers are skeptical of leaving the protection of property rights to the courts. They don’t like people who sue or get sued. They argue that whether you are defending or suing, the process is laborious and expensive. The outcome is not certain. I don’t agree that property owners should surrender their rights to associations or industry-influenced state officials. What if there was a controversy-deciding branch of government that the constitution separates from special-interest influence and the political winds of change? Wouldn’t that be worth supporting? I know that there are legal procedures that drive up the time and expense of the process without adding significant due process value. That does not mean that the courts should be divested of the power to conduct independent review and award remedies not available anywhere else.
Judicial Remedies Are Better Options Than Many Owners Think:
Fortunately, owners have many rights that their boards and managers are not informing them about. Many common law protections have not been overruled. In Virginia, restrictive covenants are disfavored. Any enforcement must have a firm footing in the governing documents, statutes and case law. The statutes adopted by the legislature limiting the common law protections are strictly (narrowly) interpreted by the courts. It is not necessary, and may be counterproductive to run to some elected or appointed bureaucratic official. Under our constitutional structure, the courts have the power to enforce property rights. Many owners cannot wait for the possibility that a future legislative session might repeal the fine statutes. If they are experiencing immediate problems (like improper dumping of garbage or whatever) they need help now. In rare cases law enforcement may be able to help. In most cases working with a qualified attorney to petition the local court for relief is the answer.
July 5, 2017
Property owners are frustrated when their builder fails to properly complete the agreed upon work for the purchase price. Sometimes these difficulties are relatively minor. Perhaps only a timely warranty claim letter to the builder will get the problems fixed. Not all disputes can be resolved amicably. For relatively simple matters, the owner may be able to sue pro se in small claims court. Many construction disputes require greater commitment of time, know-how and resources to resolve. When the relationship between the contractor and the owner breaks down, it may not be clear to whom should owners turn with contractor complaints. This blog post highlights various options owners may have for obtaining assistance with builder problems.
The Contracting Company’s Leadership:
Owners should first seek to amicably resolve disputes over a contractor’s performance with the company’s representatives. If the concerns can be effectively communicated and negotiated, the owner may avoid having to go to court, arbitrator or governmental agency. Sending a certified letter to the contractor may be necessary under the provisions of a statutory or contractual warranty. Check out my previous post about “Construction Defect Warranty Claims.” Communication can be a useful means of obtaining information. The owner may need to contact the leadership if their inquiries to company employees are ignored.
City or County Government Officials:
In Virginia, the city or county has the legal mandate to enforce the statewide building codes. There are offices staffed with experienced officials who conduct inspections and reviews to determine whether the project meets the building codes. The primary purpose of building code enforcement is to protect public health and safety. The code enforcement process begins long before anyone brings a complaint before the local government. Many projects, especially major renovations and new home construction require drawings to be submitted and a permit granted before work may commence. When presented with a complaint, code enforcement will look at the work on the property and consult the approved drawings and the building codes.
While compliance with the building codes is important, it is not the end of the story. If the contractor only builds to the minimum standard required to pass county inspections, the owner may be disappointed. The concept of a “dream home” includes code compliance, but goes significantly beyond that. Owners have rights not simply to a product that passes code inspection but work that conforms to the contract, warranty and drawings. There are quality control issues that aren’t addressed in most contracts, drawings or building codes. Take caution regarding contractors who talk about “dream homes” before the contract is signed and then only in terms of “code compliance” after getting several payments.
It is important for owners to understand what code enforcement is not. While the officials promote a public function, they do not exist to provide pro bono expert services. They will not provide cost estimates to finish or repair the work. Their job is not to make sure that the owners get what they bargained for in the contract with the builder. In some situations, they may enforce the building code against the owner. If the project is shut down because of code enforcement action, this may cause delays and additional expenses to the owner.
In general, the code enforcement offices do a great job within their specific legal mandate of enforcing the building codes. However, owners must understand that the county or city does not have the broad powers of a court to provide remedies and protections.
If a contractor or owner does not agree with a decision made by code enforcement, there is an appeal process available. However, appeals are rare because of the expenses and delays.
State Board of Contractors:
Contractors must be licensed to engage in the construction services they deliver. The state board performs a useful function in the contracting field. Consumers and the public have good reason to expect the government to protect their health and safety. Also, contractors often take large amounts of money from owners who then expect them to perform on the work. Some people lose motivation once they get the money in their bank account. While we don’t usually categorize contractors as “fiduciaries,” in a sense they are such. The Virginia Board of Contractors deals with the application, issuance and suspension of contractors’ licenses. They also have regulations that can be the basis of a professional disciplinary proceeding if violated. The Contractor’s Recovery Fund provides a means for financial recovery for some consumers in egregious suits where the contractor lacks resources to satisfy a judgment. In a previous post I explored the question, “Should Homeowners Bring Complaints Against Contractors Before Courts or Regulators?” As discussed there in more detail, often there isn’t much benefit to owners to go to the state board until they exhaust remedies elsewhere. However, owners and their attorneys should know what the requirements are for recovery against the state fund so that they can meet those requirements in the lawsuit. The state board will look to the records of the proceedings of the lawsuit in the city or county courts in their investigation. Also, the failure to pay a court judgment is a violation of the licensure regulations. For many aggrieved owners, petitioning the state board only makes sense towards the end of the legal process.
In particularly egregious cases of fraud, embezzlement or other wrongful activities, the contractor may have criminal liability. In most cases, inquiring with law enforcement will not result in charges or restitution order. However, owners should not rule out going to law enforcement entirely. Some cases do rise above civil disputes.
As the years go by, more builders put arbitration clauses in their consumer contracts. In many cases, these arbitration clauses do not help owners. Often, they tend to limit or practically eliminate the consumer’s rights to legal remedies. It can be difficult for owners to navigate the arbitration process without legal counsel because of certain delaying tactics that often occur in arbitration. I recently wrote a blog post about a New Jersey case where a consumer overcame obstructionist use of arbitration provisions. Many property owners do not focus on these provisions when they review the contract during the sales process. When a legal dispute develops, the parties should check the dispute resolution provisions of the contract to see if they mandate arbitration, waive the right to a jury trial or limit the courts where claims may be brought.
Judges & Juries:
Last but not least, owners can bring their complaints against builders before state or federal courts. Under our legal system, the judiciary, i.e. judges, have the legal mandate to interpret contracts and statutes and provide remedies for any breach. In Virginia, if the claim is for $5,000.00 or less it may be brought in the Small Claims Division where the parties do not ordinarily have attorneys. However, any party may bring a case out of small claims by retaining an attorney and filing for removal. Claims for money for $25,000.00 or less (not including court costs, attorney’s fees or interest) may be brought in the General District Court for the city or county where the property is located. The General District Court has the advantage that proceedings there tend to be faster and cheaper for consumers. Claims over $25,000.00 may be brought in the Circuit Court where cases may take up to a year to be resolved. Litigation in the Circuit Court tends to have lots of motions, discovery and other pretrial activities. Some of my readers say that consumers and owners should not go to litigation because it can be expensive and uncertain. In my view, there are reforms that the general assembly or the judiciary could take to reduce the laboriousness of litigation. I do not believe that creating an alternative to the court system within government agencies procedures works for owners or consumers. I explored this in a previous post on this point. That makes it too easy for special interests to gain control over the process through lobbying.
The bank exercises a significant amount of control over the construction process. The builder typically looks to the bank for payment. The bank will send out its own private inspectors to look at the progress on the job site and report to the loan officer whether completion of a phase of construction warrants disbursement of a draw. The purpose of the bank inspector is to protect against fraud and to confirm that the payment would be adequately secured by the bank’s lien on the property. This inspector works for the bank and does not focus on whether the owner would ultimately be happy with the work that is being done. Owners should not impede the bank inspection process and take heed if the loan officer calls to their attention that the inspector raises any questions.
Mechanic’s Lien Agent:
In Virginia and some other states, the law requires that a Mechanic’s Lien Agent be appointed at the beginning of the project. The purpose of the MLA is to accept delivery of notices by subcontractors and material suppliers that they have not been paid so that such issues can be resolved without a mechanic’s lien being filed by anyone working or supplying to the jobsite. The MLA is not there to provide a dispute resolution service regarding any threatened lien but may be a source of information for owners seeking to confirm what is happening with their contractor and its subs.
To whom should owners turn with contractor complaints? That depends upon the facts of the case. One of the problems with all these separate venues, officials or information sources is that an owner might focus on one and miss a deadline to obtain the remedy they are entitled to from another. This consumer protection landscape is ripe for confusion by the people it is designed to protect. Ideally, the owner will not need to resort to any of these options and can negotiate a good deal and obtain a great result without having to bring grievances before an official, judge or arbitrator. Many owners experience this. However, owners are at a disadvantage. While they have the money that contractors want, they don’t have the technical or legal experience needed to get what they want out of the process. Contractors have experience preparing and negotiating written contracts and change orders. They know what to say to sell their services. They know the officials that work at the county inspection offices. They have their own lawyers. Consumers look to the builder for both the service itself and information about how to shop for the service. For most property owners, a custom home is the largest purchase they will ever make. Getting an attorney or other experienced person to review the contract before signing it can go a long way towards getting the bargain they seek. Owners should not rely upon their adversary to provide them with useful legal counsel. Seeking legal counsel may not require a commitment to a year of litigation. In fact, it may be the best means of avoiding that.