February 1, 2024
I enjoy seeing properties adorned with colored lights and other decorations for holidays. It is unusual for a homeowner to set up holiday decorations or host activities that cause a genuine nuisance to neighboring properties. In my view, personalized holiday displays enhance the living experience. It is fun that they are all different. Some are ostensibly religious, others feature Peanuts or Dr. Seuss characters. In December, I saw several inflatable Grinch figures, small and large. The Grinch endures in pop culture because in most people there is a small place in the heart that is jealous of other people’s happiness.
Some people take a different view. To them, that there are certain practices, such as too many lights, leaving them up too long, or too many signs that are not to their taste. Many people who volunteer for HOA leadership positions believe that some residents need firm direction as to what is not acceptable. A process of self-selection brings forth candidates for boards and committees who want to see changes. Their ideas tend to involve stricter rules or increased charges. Personally, I am not much of a libertarian. An orderly sort of liberty requires a few rules. Developers design subdivisions and multifamily buildings according to particular standards and expectations. Usually, the original governing instruments reflect those designs. Many problems seen with HOAs are the result of subsequent boards of directors who want to take the community into a different direction, through a variety of amendments and new policies at odds with what the purchasers fairly though they were buying their families into. Developers rarely show any interest in establishing community standards for holiday displays, because such things are seen as temporary. HOAs are known for instigating enforcement against homeowners who erect holiday displays. Few of those stories ever make it into the news.
One high-profile, ongoing HOA dispute concerns Christmas at West Hayden First Addition HOA in Idaho. Homeowners Jeremy and Kristy Morris have been in disputes with this HOA since 2015. They have a pending appeal in the federal court system. Jeremy Morris is an alumnus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. When the Morrises wanted to purchase their home, they reached out to the Board of Directors to ask them if they would oppose the type of Christmas displays and programs that drew crowds to their previous residence. This began a longstanding conflict between the Morrises, the board and other lot owners regarding the holiday activities. Former director Larry Strayer found out about the Morrises inquiry and submitted for the board’s consideration a strident draft letter stating:
And finally, I am somewhat hesitant in bring up the fact that some of our residents are avowed atheists and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up. It is not the intention of the Board to discourage you from becoming part of our great neighborhood but we do not wish to become entwined in any expensive litigation to enforce long standing rules and regulations and fill our neighborhood with the riff-raff you seemed to attract over by WalMart. [sic] Grouse Meadows indeed!!! We don’t allow “those kind” in our neighborhood.
The board did not like the incendiary wording of this draft. The directors made edits to the letter. Director Pat Kellig sent to the Morris family a revised version including the following language:
And finally, I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up. It is not the intention of the Board to discourage you from becoming part of our great neighborhood but we do not wish to become entwined in expensive litigation to enforce long standing rules and regulations and fill our neighborhood with the hundreds of people and possible undesirables. We have worked hard to keep our area peaceful, quiet, and clean. Neighbors respect the CC & R’s [sic] and show common courtesy to those around them. These are why people want to live here.
This version was sent by Ms. Kellig to the Morrises without the approval of the other directors. When the Morrises obtained a copy of Mr. Strayer’s initial version, they saw it as evidence of an anti-Christian animus within the HOA.
The case ended up in the U.S. District Court for Idaho. The Judge found that the purpose of the Morrises Christmas program was to support charities and to engage in religious ministry. They did not request or obtain approval from the HOA to conduct the five-day long program. They decorated the house with 200,000 Christmas lights. They invited thousands of people. The attendees arrived by the busload or drove themselves and parked on the street. The program included people dressed as the Grinch, Frosty the Snowman, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Roman soldiers and Santa Claus. Someone brough a live camel and donkey to enhance the nativity scene. The program included amplified Christmas music. Neighbors complained about the traffic, parking and noise problems. As you can imagine, this Christmas program drew strong pro and con reactions within the community.
The Morrises presented evidence that various residents of the community exhibited threatening behavior towards them regarding the Christmas program. Mr. Morris described receiving a “death threat.” However, the Morrises could not prove that the threats shouted at them were made by board members. The Judge later concluded that whatever statement that resident made did not amount to a “death threat.” The opinion suggests that the angry resident said that he would “take care” of Mr. Morris.
At trial, the jury found in favor of the Morrises on their religious discrimination claim. They awarded the Morrises $60,000.00 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages. The HOA filed a motion challenging the basis for the jury’s verdict and sought entry of an injunction to order the Morrises to stop conducting their Christmas program on the grounds that it violated the restrictive covenants.
The Judge agreed with the HOA. The Judge’s view was that the HOA letters introduced into evidence did not evidence a discriminatory animus on the part of the board with regard to the family’s Christian religion. The Judge observed that the original version of the letter was not written by a director, and that the version that was actually sent was toned down and reflected a sense of religious pluralism. To some, approval of the Morris Christmas celebration would suggest favoritism towards Christianity. Also, it came out at trial that the members of the board were also of the Christian religion.
The opinion does not state to what extent any of the board’s deliberations were conducted in an open meeting or duly convened executive session. The letters in this case illustrate how directors, managers and lot owners ought to conduct themselves in a civil fashion, realizing that the communications may eventually come out. I don’t understand why the board agreed to field this question. In my view, the covenants ought to speak for themselves, and the board should not be considering architectural “applications” from persons who haven’t even purchased their homes.
Regarding the residents shouting at the Morrises, the Judge considered to what extent the HOA could be responsible for threats made by persons not proved to be directors. A handful of courts have considered to what extent a HOA board may be found responsible under the Fair Housing Act for the discriminatory animus of persons who are not on the board or some other position of authority. HUD interprets the Fair Housing Act to only hold landlords or boards responsible for the discriminatory actions of other residents if the person in authority knew about the discriminatory conduct and had the power to correct it. If the HOA board doesn’t have meaningful ability to control or correct the harassment, then they can’t be held liable for the discrimination. Sometimes, HOAs and condominiums justify harsh litigation or enforcement activity on the grounds that the failure to do so could result in fair housing claims. However, if the declaration and the statutes do not give the HOA the authority to regulate the activity, then this is not an adequate justification.
The judge set aside the jury’s verdict in favor of the Morrises as not adequately supported by the evidence. Readers, please be aware that setting aside a jury verdict is ordinarily considered to be an extreme decision, only taken where there is a miscarriage of justice. A jury’s verdict is supposed to be upheld even if the judge disagrees with the jury’s findings regarding the credibility of the witnesses.
The judge’s decision also considered the HOA’s request for an injunction against future Christmas celebrations by the Morris family. The HOA’s restrictive covenants contained typical provisions that one sees in recorded instruments throughout the country from the past 10-15 years. The “modern” trend is to have general language that allows the HOA to adopt rules and regulations governing the architectural alternations or decorations to the property, and to require lot owners to apply and obtain approval for changes. The judge found the Morrises holiday celebrations excessive and not in keeping with the residential character of the development. The Judge found the impact of the glare, noise, parking and traffic to be a nuisance. The judge didn’t really consider what, if any holiday decorations or observances that the Morris family could have without approval or provide any guidance on what the HOA ought to approve.
The focus of the Morrises and the judge was the question of anti-Christian discriminatory animus. However, what’s important when it comes to religious liberty is the free exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us against governmental action that infringes upon freedoms of speech, assembly and religion. Generally speaking, this does not speak to situations where a private citizen or corporation, such as a HOA or landlord, infringes upon such freedoms. In the context of enforcement of HOA rules and covenants, there are other public policy considerations that may make a covenant or rule unenforceable on the basis of civil liberties. For example, a state constitution may have protections of civil liberties that may be broader than the U.S. Constitution.
If this case was all about temporary religious or political decorations, I would be inclined to take Jeremy Morris’ side. From reading this opinion, I can’t tell whether any of his neighbors’ ability to drive to their houses was impaired by the traffic or parking. Also, it’s not clear whether the lights or the music interfered with the ability of a person of normal sensitivity to fall asleep at night, even with the windows closed. That said, I do sympathize with the Morris family’s concerns. For many homeowners, trying to fight their HOA over decorations is too difficult. His case brings some publicity to important issues that might not be otherwise considered by the public.
Lastly, I want my readers to note that Jeremy Morris is an attorney and he represented himself and his wife in this federal lawsuit. Many of the homeowners, officers, directors and committee members who are active in HOA and condominium disputes and business went to law school or work in law offices. It’s natural for people with legal training or experience to find the legal affairs of their HOA to be interesting. However, it’s difficult to represent oneself in a major federal lawsuit. There is an adage, (which is sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln), “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” This saying is particularly true for attorneys who find themselves the party to the suit. As a result of this case, Mr. Morris is under investigation by the Idaho State Bar, because he made some public statements about the judge who ruled against him. It’s hard to say whether the Morris case would have gone better if they had hired another lawyer to advise and represent them.
The appeal in this case was argued before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 5, 2020. That court has not made a ruling yet. The Morris family’s disputes over Christmas at West Hayden First Addition HOA have been going on for eight years and the litigation is not resolved. Whatever decision the appeals court makes will only address narrow questions and give specific directions to the trial court. Courts cannot take the reins of the operation of a private business or government agency. These neighbors are going to go on living with each other until someone moves.