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:
April 28, 2017
One problem that owners in HOAs and condominiums face is access to justice. Boards enjoy various out-of-court remedies, such as fines, liens and foreclosures. To obtain remedies for the board’s breach of the governing documents, owners must bring a lawsuit. This requires legal counsel familiar with how governing documents, statutes and judicial precedent fit together. When cases go to trial, owners face uncertainty in the amount of attorney’s fees that may be awarded to the prevailing party. What determines whether a condo owner prevails on her request for attorneys fees? Many judges seem reluctant to award a full amount of attorney’s fees. Is seeking the assistance of a state agency a viable alternative to the courts?
I’m happy when I can report news to my readers when owners win and courts set precedents that will help them in the future. On April 13, 2017, condo owner Martha Lambert won a significant victory in the Supreme Court of Virginia against Sea Oats Condominium Association. Her board forced her to hire an attorney go to trial to obtain reimbursement for a $500.00 repair. The governing documents contractually obligated this Virginia Beach association to repair an exterior door jamb to her condo unit. The board failed to make the repair despite her persistent requests. They insisted that the damage was to a limited common element that was her responsibility. Initially, she sought petitioned the Virginia Common Interest Community Ombudsman’s Office to redress the board’s adverse decision. The Ombudsman issued a couple decisions letters indicating that she was unable to help Ms. Lambert. The owner made the repair herself and sued the association in the General District Court of Virginia Beach. When Sea Oats prevailed in G.D.C., Lambert appealed to the Circuit Court. There Sea Oats continued to defend the case, filing a motion and discovery requests. Lambert prevailed in the subsequent trial. The judge awarded a $500 judgment in her favor and against the condominium association. Ms. Lambert’s attorney submitted an affidavit indicating she incurred $8,232.00 in attorney’s fees. Under the Virginia Condominium Act, a prevailing party is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees. The parties submitted briefs and argued a post-trial motion on the issue of attorney’s fees.
The lawyers for the condominium board opposed the attorney’s fees award. They argued that the owner’s request for attorney’s fees was 16 times the amount of the judgment. Without waiting to read Ms. Lambert’s response, the Judge James C. Lewis awarded her only $375.00 in attorney’s fees. Ms. Lambert’s attorney nonetheless filed a brief, and provided notice that she incurred an additional $2,650 in fees for the post-trial motions activity.
Was court litigation Ms. Lambert’s only means of redress against the condo board’s adverse decision regarding the broken door? Is there some state agency or official who can aid resolution of these disputes? Ms. Lambert tried to take this dispute to the Office of the Common Interest Community Ombudsman. Ombudsman Heather S. Gillespie issued a decision letter on April 17, 2013. Ms. Gillespie observed that her office lacked the legal authority to decide the dispute because the answer lay in the interpretation of the condominium instruments (bylaws, covenants, etc.) as to whose obligation it was to repair the limited common element. In a separate letter dated May 13, 2013, Ms. Gillespie declined to decide against Sea Oats on Ms. Lambert’s claim to inspect the association books and records pursuant to the Condominium Act. Ms. Gillespie observed that the Act was not clear and that sorting out statutory ambiguity was the province of the courts. As you can see from this case study, the Ombudsman’s Office lacks the authority to decide cases where parties present conflicting interpretation of legal documents. Of course, if the parties agreed as to what they meant, there would not be a dispute. Consumers and property owners are better off in court anyway because of the independence of the judiciary from lobbying and the political winds of change.
Ms. Lambert’s only effective means of redress was through the courts so that’s where she went. There are two ways of looking at Ms. Lambert’s case. There is a view that if someone files a civil lawsuit, they must have done something wrong to incur the damage that they suffered or they are otherwise petty or vindictive. In my years of practice both bringing and defending civil suits, I have come to see that there is often an unfair prejudice against plaintiffs.
The other perspective is that Sea Oats drove unnecessary litigation by failing to perform their maintenance obligations and then aggressively defending the suit to exhaust Ms. Lambert’s resources. If the defendant can simply outspend and exhaust their opponent, they don’t need to be in the right. If obstructionist tactics are rewarded in how attorney’s fee awards are determined, then the specific obligations of the HOA or condominium covenants can be made of no effect.
Judge Lewis explained why he only awarded $375 in attorney’s fees. He found that Ms. Lambert’s lawyer did a “magnificent job,” but “I thought $6,000 in attorney’s fees on a case involving a dispute of $500 was not fair to the Defendant [Sea Oats].” Ms. Lambert appealed her case to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Was it proper for Judge Lewis to find that a prevailing party could be denied almost all the attorney’s fees she incurred because the amount was not “proportional” to the judgment? Lawyers know from experience that, especially in many state courts, judges are reluctant to award a prevailing party $6,000-$9,000 in attorney’s fees on a $500.00 judgment. The practical effect is that owners and their lawyers are reluctant to bring lawsuits where the amount of attorney’s fees is expected to exceed the value of what could be expected in the judgment. Sometimes these circumstances embolden boards to strategically breach the covenants.
On appeal, Ms. Lambert analogized the attorney’s fees provision in the Condominium Act to similar provisions in the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. The Supreme Court previously held that the purpose of the VCPA’s attorney’s fees provisions is to encourage private citizens to enforce the statute through civil litigation. Otherwise, the VCPA’s policies could be made of no effect if the consumer must bear the costs of vindicating the statutory rights. If you listen to the audio recording on the Court’s website, you can hear Lambert’s appellate attorney Kevin Martingayle doing an excellent job arguing the case to the justices.
On appeal, a judge’s determination of an award of attorney’s fees is evaluated on an “abuse of discretion” standard. However, the scope of the judge’s discretion is not absolute. The statutes and contract provisions create a boundary of exercise of discretion. The Supreme Court viewed the trial judge’s “proportionality” requirement as an incorrect legal conclusion misinforming his decision.
The Condominium Act states that the prevailing party in an action to enforce compliance with the condominium covenants and bylaws shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees. There is an analogous section in the Property Owners Association Act that applies to most HOA’s in Virginia. These statutes are exceptions to the general rule that each party to a lawsuit must pay their own attorney’s fees. Unless you are in Alaska, courts won’t consider attorneys fee requests unless there is a statute or contract provision that allows for attorney’s fees. The Condominium Act makes an award of reasonable attorney’s fees mandatory when one side prevails, instead of merely an option for the judge.
What factors determine the reasonableness of an award of attorney’s fees? According to the Supreme Court of Virginia, those factors include:
- 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.
Judges are also permitted to consider other factors. In Lambert v. Sea Oats, the Supreme Court found that the amount of damages awarded was a permissible consideration under the “results obtained” factor. However, “merely applying a ratio between the damages actually awarded and damages originally sought will not satisfy the reasonableness inquiry.” This is common sense. In some cases, the non-prevailing party will engage in vigorous litigation tactics that will leave their opponent with the choice of taking necessary action to obtain a result in the case or abandon the claim. Conversely, plaintiffs can also be found to “over-litigate” cases, resulting in defendants incurring attorney fees that may be unnecessary in the case was properly brought. A formulaic ratio may be simply inadequate to do justice. The Supreme Court observed that a trial court may consider any disparity between the amount sought in the lawsuit versus the verdict. If a plaintiff sues for $500,000.00 but only receives $50,000.00 at trial, then this may factor in the attorney’s fee award. The Supreme Court found that Judge Lewis should have compared the $500 sought to the $500 awarded instead of the ratio of the fee request to the award:
[T]he “results obtained” factor does not permit courts to do what the circuit court did here—i.e., to use the amount of damages sought as a limit beyond which no attorney’s fees will be awarded. To do so tells parties that they may not recover the reasonable attorney’s fees they incur simply by sending an attorney through the courthouse door if they prosecute, or defend against, claims in which such fees exceed the amount in controversy. Circuit court litigation comes at a price, sometimes a heavy price. There is an initial pleading, or an answer to one, to research, write, and file. Discovery may be propounded and must be answered. There will be witnesses to prepare for trial. There may be pre-trial motions to research, write, and argue. And then there is the trial itself, if the case makes it that far. If either party invokes its right to a jury, trial could encompass everything from voir dire to jury instructions.
Each of these tasks requires an attorney’s time and, provided the time is reasonable in light of his or her experience and the nature of the case, he or she may expect compensation for that time at a reasonable rate. Undoubtedly, the number of tasks and the time required for them will vary depending on whether the ad damnum is $500 or $5 million, regardless of whether the attorney represents the plaintiff or the defendant. They will likewise vary based on the vigor with which the opposing party responds. But it is the court’s duty to assess the necessity of those tasks, the time spent on them, and the rate charged “under the facts and circumstances of the particular case.” Mullins, 241 Va. at 449, 403 S.E.2d at 335. This does not require the court to pore over pages and pages of billing records to evaluate the reasonableness of each line-item. But the court may neither shirk its duty to assess what amount of attorney’s fees is reasonable in the specific case before it, nor award an amount so low that it fails to reimburse the prevailing party for the costs necessary to effectively litigate the claim that—after all—it prevailed on.
Plaintiffs who come to court believe they have legitimate claims that are being illegitimately denied by the defendant. Defendants who come to court believe their defenses are legitimate. Neither’s position need be frivolous; they may simply disagree. But when each of them comes to court seeking a neutral adjudication of their disagreement, each is there because the opposing side forced him or her to be. When the case is covered by a fee-shifting provision and the court weighs the reasonable amount of attorney’s fees to award, it cannot dismiss out of hand the costs of litigation inflicted on the prevailing party by the losing party’s insistence on its losing argument, based solely on the dollar value of the claim. To do so deprives the parties of the benefit of their bargain if the fee-shifting provision is contractual and contravenes the intent of the General Assembly if the provision is statutory.
We stress that this holding does not mean that courts may not consider the value of the claim, along with other factors, to assess the complexity of the case (and therefore the legal services necessary to represent the client’s interests), or whether those services were necessary and appropriate in light of the claims prosecuted or defended against. It means only that courts may not do what this court did and say that “$6,000 in attorney’s fees on a case involving a dispute of $500” is unreasonable per se, without regard to the necessary costs of effectively litigating a claim.
The Supreme Court’s decision requires the case to go back to the Circuit Court of Virginia Beach to reconsider the award of attorney’s fees in light of the opinion.
Lambert v. Sea Oats is a big victory for owners in condominiums and HOAs. First, it sends a message that the particular circumstances of a case cannot be ignored and replaced by some percentage of the judgment. Second, this discourages HOA and condo boards from stonewalling owners’ rightful claims for what they are entitled under the governing documents. Third, it puts the obligation on the parties to make sound, rational litigation decisions. Fourth, it will help owners in cases that will never actually go to court. Why? Because the association lawyers will counsel their clients regarding this case and it will deter the kind of conduct that gave rise to cases like Ms. Lambert’s.
What I dislike about the trial judge’s approach in awarding only $375 is that it places parties like Ms. Lambert in an impossible position. Without reversals like this appellate decision, in the next case an owner would have to either (a) fix the common area herself and not seek reimbursement, thus making the covenants to no benefit to her, (b) limit the attorney’s activity to one or two hours of work, which could result in the owner losing the case for failure on a procedural technicality, or (c) effectively pay eight or nine thousand dollars to get the door fixed when the board is required to do it for $500.00.
Not all community association lawsuits are about money damages. Sometimes the plaintiff seeks an order that their opponent stop doing something, to take affirmative action required under a contract, or to declare the results of a board election invalid. In a footnote, the Supreme Court states that in those cases there may not be a dollar amount in controversy: “These cases tend to be binary, and the ‘result obtained’ is clear based on whether the relief sought was granted or denied.”
Does this new decision mean that homeowners will always get a disproportional award of attorney’s fees in small dollar cases where they prevail? No. But it does help to level the playing field of litigation. I hope that this case encourages more owners to pursue legal action when they suffer damage and infringement of rights in association matters. This case should also discourage owners and boards alike from bringing cases that should not be brought in the first place.
Update July 20, 2022:
I have a new blog post about Attorney fee awards in HOA and condominium law cases. “Awards of Attorney’s Fees in Community Association Litigation.” This blog post addresses the issue of attorneys fees in these cases more generally, with greater focus on the procedural aspects of such claims.
For Further Reading or Listening:
The photograph for this blog post doesn’t depict anything discussed in the article. It’s a row-house in Alexandria, Virginia.