July 20, 2022
I am frequently asked if the winner of a lawsuit between a community association and a homeowner will get an award of attorney’s fees at the end. For many property owners, the cost of litigating for months or years is burdensome, especially if it cannot be recovered. Virginia, like most states, follows the “American Rule” requiring each side bear their own fees, unless there is a statute, contract or other exception that allows fee shifting. The Virginia Condominium Act and Property Owners Association Act (HOAs) allow for prevailing party attorney fee awards in actions to enforce the statutes or instruments. Also, some recorded instruments (declarations, bylaws, amendments) provide a “contractual” basis for attorney fee awards. In most community association litigation, there is a statutory or contractual basis for an award of prevailing party attorney’s fees and costs. However, the statutes may not apply if the development does not meet the statutory definition of a condominium or property owners association. In such cases, the homeowner ought to consider whether another exception to the American Rule applies.
There are judicial opinions that address attorney fee awards in the HOA context. I discussed an important Supreme Court of Virginia case in my April 28, 2017 blog post, “Condo Owner Prevails on Her Request for Attorney Fees” That case, Lambert v. Sea Oats Owners Association, restates the seven factors that courts weigh in considering the reasonableness of a petition for attorney’s fees:
- The time and effort expended by the attorney.
- The nature of the services rendered.
- The complexity of the services.
- The value of the services to the client.
- The results obtained.
- Whether the fees incurred were consistent with those generally charged for similar services
- Whether the services were necessary and appropriate.
In Lambert v. Sea Oats, the trial judge decided to reduce the fee award on the grounds that the underlying amount of compensatory damages was much lower than the attorney’s fees. The trial judge decided that the attorney’s fee ought not to be out of proportion to the claim on the merits. This presented a problem to the unit owner, whose victory was hollowed by having her attorney’s fees award drastically reduced. This practice could encourage some to “stonewall” their opponent in a way that practically deprives them of their rights. In Lambert the Supreme Court disallowed cutting fees on such grounds.
In today’s post I would like to focus more on the procedural aspects of attorney’s fees petitions, because there are things are party is required to do if they want to avail themselves of the statutory or contractual provisions that entitle them to fees. Fulfilling these procedural requirements are important in part because many trial judges in Virginia are inclined not to award attorneys fees, even when the prevailing party is entitled to such an award by a contract or statute.
The procedural requirements for presenting a petition for attorney’s fees in Virginia vary from those used in the federal courts and some other states. In Virginia, the basis for the attorney’s fees claim must be specifically alleged the lawsuit. The parties are entitled to obtain copies of their opponent’s attorney fee invoices in discovery. Unless an order is entered otherwise, any party asserting an attorney fee claim must submit evidence in support of it at trial, otherwise the claim is waived. The rules allow for bifurcation of attorney’s fees. This allows the court to declare a victor and decide the attorneys fees at a subsequent hearing. However, bifurcation is supposed to be made by the parties mutual consent or by a pretrial order. In many cases, the party seeking fees will call an expert witness to testify regarding the reasonableness of the fee. In many lawsuits regarding property, by the time the case goes to trial, recovery for the cost of litigating becomes an important issue for the parties. Attorneys and their clients often prefer dealing with attorney fee petitions post-trial for a number of reasons. Trying to win on the merits requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail. If a party presents a large fee petition as a part of their trial presentation, the judge or jury may view their case as more about the attorneys fees and less about the merits. Also, its easier to calculate the attorneys fees award a couple weeks after trial because the trial is already concluded.
By contrast, in the federal courts a claim for attorneys fees is made by a post-trial motion filed in usually a couple weeks, unless a statute or scheduling order requires it to be presented at trial. As you can imagine, attorneys accustomed to the federal rules may miss the pretrial requirements imposed by the Virginia court rules, and later discover that they are procedurally barred from presenting their attorney’s fees claim.
Many attorneys mistakenly believe that if their client prevails, they can add all of their assorted litigation costs to the attorney fee and costs award. I’m talking about things like court reporter appearance or transcript fees, hotel fees, rental cars, expert witness fees, overnight delivery charges, and so on. Many of these things, such as court reporters and photocopies are as essential to the clients case. However, the only costs that are ordinarily recoverable under Virginia law are the court filing fees and the service of process fees. Depending upon the subject matter of the case and the contract documents, other costs may be made part of an award.
The attorneys fees statutes for HOAs and condominiums don’t just apply to claims by the homeowner against the association. The association can assert the same basis for attorneys fees, be it as a plaintiff or defendant. Also, the statute can apply to claims brought by a homeowner against another homeowner under the acts or the governing instruments.
When a homeowner files a lawsuit against the community association, other owners are often concerned about payment of attorney fees in defense of the suit. Ordinarily, when an association is sued, they place a claim with their insurance, who appoints them a lawyer to defend the case. The insurance defense attorneys are ordinarily seasoned trial attorneys who different kinds of civil defense work in addition to defending HOAs. Often, the board will assure residents that the insurance is taking care of the attorney’s bills. However, the association is likely to incur additional attorneys fees, because the board’s regular general counsel ordinarily participates in the communications between the board and the insurance defense attorney. The general counsel’s fees are not ordinarily reimbursed by the insurance.
Given how expensive it can become to litigate a HOA case to the end, the parties ought to give careful consideration to how a petition for fees will be supported or opposed. One must also consider that in the event that the case can be resolved through a negotiated agreement, the attorney fee claims have to settled or released in the context of the settlement of the case.
Fairfax Square LLC v. Hermes of Paris, Inc., 89 Va. Cir. 406 (Fairfax 2015)
July 12, 2022
In property cases, many parties seek an injunction. An injunction is a court ruling directing a defendant do something specific or to refrain from doing something. Violations of an injunction order may be enforced by contempt proceedings. Injunctions contrast with other remedies such as awards money damages. Injunctions are important in condominium and HOA cases. Sometimes boards sue to force an owner to obey a restrictive covenant. Someone may be obstructing an easement. The board may be acting in a fashion that is contrary to the statutes or declaration. While a party may believe that injunctive relief is the obvious answer, obscure doctrine may hinder the use of this “extraordinary” remedy. Today’s post covers considerations for bringing or opposing homeowner injunction claims against HOAs. On May 24, 2019, I posted an article, “Injunctions in HOA cases.” I am blogging about this again today because of how important this remedy is to homeowners seeking legal solutions in HOA matters.
Virginia law usually requires, (1) irreparable harm and, (2) an inadequate remedy at law to warrant an injunction. The harm doesn’t have to threaten life, limb or entire loss of the property to be deemed “irreparable” or to be absolutely permanent. But it must be some sort of substantial threat or actual, continuing infringement of a legal right. “Inadequate remedy at law” means that the problem cannot be sufficiently resolved by means of an award of possession, money damages, or some sort of appropriate legal process defined by law.
For enforcement of property rights, the Supreme Court of Virginia recognizes that an injunction is an appropriate remedy. The violation of a real property interest is deemed “irreparable”, and the owner ought to be protected in the enjoyment of his property. Yet, the other party may avoid the imposition of an injunction if it can demonstrate that it would create a hardship or injustice that is out of proportion to the relief sought. Although there are many published judicial opinions regarding injunctions, the distinctions may seem “fuzzy.” This is because the relevant facts, recorded instruments and statutes will vary. Injunctions involve judicial discretion.
There are other exceptions to the requirement of irreparable harm and inadequacy of a legal remedy. Neither must be proven when a statute or ordinance expressly empowers a court to grant injunctive relief. In that case, all that is required is proof that the statute or regulation has been violated. This is important in homeowner injunction claims against HOAs because the statutes allow such relief to enforce the VPOAA or Condominium Act.
A party seeking to enforce a real covenant is entitled to the equitable remedy requested upon showing the validity of the covenant and its breach. In such instances, the plaintiff is not required to prove damages or the inadequacy of a remedy at law. The relative equities of the parties do not need to be “balanced” by the judge. The courts will grant injunctions to enforce contracts for the sale of real estate. But the common law requires that restrictive covenants be clear in their express meaning to be enforced. Sometimes HOA or condominium boards act in an “ultra vires” fashion, exercising powers that the covenants don’t actually authorize them to use. Courts will enter injunctions against ultra vires activity.
Because homeowner injunction claims against HOAs focus on state statutes and recorded covenants, courts are likely to find injunctive relief appropriate. This is not to say that it is automatic. There are many defenses that may be asserted against an injunction suit. For example, the language of the statute or covenant may not entitle the plaintiff to a remedy. Relevant facts or other legal authority may provide much needed context for the court to ascertain whether an injunction is appropriate.
The defendant may be able to prove that the plaintiff is not entitled to an injunction because she slept on or relinquished her rights. There may be a statute of limitations barring the claim as too stale. The party may have affirmatively waived their claim or acted in such a way as to induce the defendant to treat it as abandoned. Such circumstances could give rise to a defense of waiver, estoppel, laches or condonation. Such defenses can be difficult to prove in the absence of a written or electronic communication by the plaintiff that constitutes an express waiver or consent.
Ordinarily, claims for injunctions are resolved at trial. But a claimant can ask for what is called a temporary or preliminary injunction pre-trial. A temporary injunction allows a court to preserve the status quo between the parties while litigation is ongoing. Many circuit court judges in Virginia expect litigants to prove the four elements of the federal courts’ test. To obtain a preliminary injunction Plaintiffs must establish they are likely to succeed on the merits, likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, the balance of equities tips in their favor, and an injunction is in the public interest. However, because HOA injunction claims involve property rights defined by statutes and recorded instruments, “irreparable harm” and “public interest” may be presumed. The “balance of the equities” will likely be the defendant’s burden to prove. This leaves the “prevailing on the merits” requirement.
Sometimes an injunction order may be enforced against tenants, purchasers or other successors to the party enjoined. For example, if a property owner is found to be causing a stormwater diversion nuisance, and the injunction requires them to make changes to the property by abating the nuisance, the defendant cannot avoid the effect of the order by leasing or conveying the property to another party who did not participate in the injunction lawsuit.
Boards of directors have a variety of remedies they can pursue that don’t necessarily require them to go to court, such as fines, privilege revocation or liens. Absent major legal reforms, homeowners remain reliant on other strategies, such as winning elections, negotiation, self-help or litigating to vindicate their rights. But these cases are winnable because the rights are set forth in recorded instruments, contracts or statutes that unless an exception or defense applies, can be enforced by injunction. Many lawyers are unfamiliar with the case law that facilitates homeowner injunction claims against HOAs. Showing that the landowner is entitled to and intending to pursue such relief may lead to faster and stronger results in resolving such disputes.