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.
May 31, 2017
The proponents and critics of HOAs and Condominiums both tend to over-simplify the law and governing documents in a way that ignores many rights of owners (and boards). Some are explaining community associations law the wrong way. This area of the law is confusing, even to law school graduates and real estate professionals. Among the governing documents are declarations, bylaws, rules & regulations, architectural guidelines, articles of incorporation and amendments. Virginia law includes the Condominium Act, Property Owners Association Act, Nonstock Corporation Act, for the state Common Interest Community Board. This is not to mention federal laws such as the Fair Housing Act. On top of this you have the state and federal constitutions and published court opinions. If a legal dispute emerges between a board and an owner, the parties will struggle to determine which, if any of these statutes and documents apply to the situation. If more than one speaks to the problem, how do you reconcile ambiguities or discrepancies. Given the rat’s nest of law and governing documents, it is a challenge for anyone to quickly sort out these things without the assistance of legal counsel.
So how do you begin to explain community associations law? Most people are visual learners. They sort out complex matters faster with cartoons, charts and other graphics. Some lawyers practicing community associations law have tried to do this for association laws and governing documents. For example, an attorney in Washington State created this graphic. I’ve seen similar graphics for other states prepared by others. Charts like this don’t explain the hierarchy of authorities in a way that reduces confusion. I don’t want my readers to think that I’m picking on the author of this chart. Perhaps this is useful for Washington State. I will explain why this approach is unhelpful with respect to Virginia law.
The General Assembly enacts legislation and private parties join covenants and other contracts. The legislature declares what statutes say. The same can be said for private parties and contracts. Under our constitutional system, the judiciary’s mandate is to declare what legislation and contracts mean in the controversies brought in litigation. Sometimes this is easy because the “plain meaning” of a statute or contract is apparent on the face of the document. Often adversaries bring with them conflicting interpretations of documents or laws when they come into the courtroom. The contract or statute may not be clear on what remedies are available for breach of a statute or contract.
Often, the courts enforce claims, defenses and remedies that aren’t memorialized in any constitution, statute, regulation, contract, etc. Someone can read all community association legislative enactments and the association’s governing documents and not identify fundamental legal rights or duties that the owner (or board) may hold. This is because Virginia, like almost all other states, has “common law” legal doctrine enshrined in older case decisions that applies, except where abolished or superseded by statute:
The common law of England, insofar as it is not repugnant to the principles of the Bill of Rights and Constitution of this Commonwealth, shall continue in full force within the same, and be the rule of decision, except as altered by the General Assembly. Va. Code § 1-200.
American judges further interpreted the common law in case decisions applying it from 1776 to the present day. The common law includes a highly-developed set of doctrines regarding property rights, covenants, defenses and court remedies. The Supreme Court recently published an opinion in Tvardek v. Powhatan Village HOA discussing how the common law disfavors restrictive covenants. Here is a link to my previous post discussing the Tvardek case. That case is still important even though the General Assembly enacted legislation in 2017 in response. Enactments of the General Assembly that strengthen the enforcement of covenants are narrowly interpreted by Virginia courts because they limit owners’ common law property rights. This means that the statutes are not interpreted to give HOAs broad powers. The authority must be sufficiently articulated. This is why the proponents of community associations are so active in state capitals.
What are these common law rights, defenses and remedies and why do they matter? There are too many to summarize in this blog post. I will provide one example. A declaration of covenants is a type of real estate contract. The Property Owners Association Act makes it easier for covenants to be legally enforced against owners (and associations) that allegedly breach them. But common law defenses to breach of contract are still available to oppose the legal action. For example, if a board is found to have clearly or consistently failed to enforce the architectural guidelines, then an owner may be able to assert common law defenses such as waiver, estoppel, abandonment of the restriction or acquiescence in the alleged violation. Common law defenses like waiver and estoppel don’t need to be in the governing documents or statutes to be asserted by the owner. Where applicable, the owner just needs to understand the definition of the common law defenses and whether they have been abrogated by statute or the covenants themselves. This is just one example of common law defenses. The Washington state community associations law graphic fails to show common law rights, defenses and remedies that are valuable to boards and owners alike.
The common law is a secret treasure trove to property owners defending themselves against board or neighbor overreach. Property owners have legal rights that aren’t described in the statutes or governing documents. These rights don’t require wing-and-prayer appeals to various state officials or convoluted constitutional arguments. They are already there in legal treatises available in law libraries. In the fast-pace of litigation where parties don’t have months or years to sort out the diverse array of legal authorities and governing documents, owners need qualified legal counsel to help them identify and protect their rights.
November 3, 2016
In many HOA disputes, only one (or a small handful of) owners desire to challenge board actions that negatively impact a larger class of owners in the community. If the court finds that the board action was invalid, then the court decision would materially impact everyone, not just the plaintiff owners and the HOA. Today’s post is about how plaintiffs lawsuits against HOAs potentially benefit other owners. Usually, a plaintiff must name everyone materially impacted by a potential outcome as parties to the lawsuit. Must a homeowner join all owners as plaintiffs or defendants in a lawsuit against a HOA seeking judicial review of a board decision? What flexibility does the law allow for one or more owners to bring a representative claim against the association to benefit themselves and other similarly situated owners? How should attorney fees be handled in cases with “free riders”? The answers to these questions show tools for owners to enjoy greater access to justice in community association disputes.
Mass claims by owners may be brought against community associations in several ways. A group of interested owners can split the cost for one law firm to sue on their behalf. Alternatively, owners may bring separate suits and have the claims consolidated in court. Filing a class action may be a feasible option in many states. Is there any other way that claims can be brought to benefit both the named plaintiffs and other similarly situated owners? Can this somehow make lawsuits against HOAs more affordable?
There are good examples of such representative actions in Virginia. Ellen & Stephen LeBlanc owned a house in Reston, a huge development in Fairfax County, Virginia. Reston is a locally prominent example of where the community association model largely replaces the town or city local government. Most Restonians live under a Master Association and a smaller HOA or condo association. Such owners must pay dues and follow the covenants for both the master and sub association.
The LeBlancs owned non-waterfront property near Reston’s Lake Thoreau. In 1994, the Master Association decided that henceforth, only waterfront owners would be permitted to moor their watercraft directly behind their properties. This would substantially inconvenience the LeBlancs’ boating activities. The LeBlancs’ lawyer Brian Hirsch filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County challenging the validity of the master HOA’s decision on both constitutional and state law grounds. The association retained Stephen L. Altman to lead their legal defense.
Roger Novak, Judy Novak, Rex Brown and Dalia Brown all owned waterfront properties on this lake. These families did not want the LeBlancs or other non-waterfront Reston owners mooring their boats behind their houses. I can’t blame them for wanting a tranquil aquatic backyard all to themselves. The Novaks and Browns hired lawyer Raymond Diaz to bring a motion to intervene. The Browns and Novaks became parties to the suit. These intervenors asked the judge to force the LeBlancs to name all the owners in Reston as parties or dismiss the case for lack of necessary parties.
In general, a lawsuit must be dismissed if the plaintiffs fail to name all parties that are necessary for the case to be properly litigated. A suit on a contract or land record usually must include all parties named in the contract or instrument. The Novaks and Browns wanted to block people like the LeBlancs from enjoying mooring privileges on the lake. They wanted the LeBlancs to name all the parties subject to the covenants recorded in the registry of deeds for the Reston Association. If the LeBlancs had to litigate against the hundreds of owners, then the case could quickly become uneconomical, even if most were friendly. The Court denied the intervening parties’ motion, upholding an exception from well-established legal precedents in non-HOA Supreme Court of Virginia opinions:
Necessary parties include all persons, natural or artificial, however numerous, materially interested either legally or beneficially in the subject matter or event of the suit and who must be made parties to it and without whose presence in court no proper decree can be rendered in the cause. This rule is inflexible, yielding only when the allegations of the bill disclose a state of case so extraordinary and exceptional in character that it is practically impossible to make all parties in interest parties to the bill, and, further that others are made parties who have the same interest as have those not brought in and are equally certain to bring forward the entire merits of the controversy as would the absent persons.
The Circuit Court found this exception to apply:
In the case at bar, it is impracticable to join the estimated 400 to 500 homeowners surrounding Reston’s five lakes in this action. Likewise, the interests of these persons are the same as those of the parties to this action, and said parties are certain to bring forward all of the merits of the case as would the absent persons.
Hundreds of other owners are materially impacted by the case’s outcome. But this exception allows the case to proceed without adding them as necessary. Other individual owners are not barred from suing or become party to the LeBlancs’ case. The other owners weren’t necessary for the practical consideration of the sheer number of the affected class. The court found the LeBlancs sufficient to represent the case against the exclusive moorings rule, and the Novaks, Browns and the HOA competent to defend the board’s action favorable to the waterfront owners. The LeBlanc’s case was permitted to proceed without adding hundreds of affected owners. This “virtual representation” procedure is significant because the court’s ruling on the validity of the board’s resolution would affect all owners, not just the parties.
At trial, the Court upheld the Board’s decision to regulate boating activity on Lake Thoreau as a valid exercise of powers granted in the covenants. The LeBlanc’s case was dismissed. The Supreme Court of Virginia declined to reverse the decision. However, the principle that one or more owners can virtually represent the interests of a large class of homeowners in a contest over the validity of HOA rulemaking has not been overturned.
In 1996, the Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria applied the same principles in a homeowner challenge to a condominium election of directors. The Colecroft Station Condo Unit Owners Association Board asked the court to dismiss the judicial review of the election because not all owners were listed as plaintiffs. The judge rebuffed demands that all owners be added as parties, citing the same exception as used in LeBlancs’ case.
This exception that all materially affected parties need not be named as a plaintiff or defendant in the lawsuit is important to homeowners’ rights for several reasons. It gives an individual or small group of owners the ability to proceed with a lawsuit even when their neighbors might be friendly but uninterested in litigating. It gives owners another option when their rights are threatened and are not effectively redressed by board of directors’ elections or initiatives to amend the governing documents. Certain types of claims may be brought where class actions are not permitted or unfeasible. One brave owner could get a court to overturn an invalid board decision infringing upon the rights of many. This “virtual representation” doctrine advances the cause of homeowner access to justice in HOA and condo cases.
One challenge in these “virtual representation” cases is the notion of “free-riders.” The HOA’s attorney’s fees are paid for by the board’s accounts receivable: assessments, fees, loans and/or fines. Representative plaintiffs leading the challenge might find themselves “carrying water” for similarly situated owners who would stand to potentially benefit from the outcome of the case but aren’t paying lawyers. Is it fair for the challenging owners to pay for the legal work undertaken to achieve a benefit to both the plaintiff and the larger class? Are they entitled to an award of attorney’s fees reflecting the benefit conferred on behalf of other interested parties not named as plaintiffs? I will address this question in a future blog post focusing on the doctrine of “common fund” or “common benefit” in attorney fee awards and how this might apply in community association cases.
LeBlanc v. Reston Homeowners’ Ass’n, 38 Va. Cir. 83 (Fairfax Co. 1995)
September 14, 2016
There is an interesting September 14, 2016 article in the Washington Post by Ilyce Glink and Samuel Tamkin entitled, “Why you should look carefully at an HOA’s plans for that community before buying a home there.” The article responds to Virginia home buyers who have great questions that aren’t answered in an HOA disclosure packet. The purchasers know that the roads the HOA owns need major repairs. It is overall a great article. The HOA disclosure packet doesn’t say how this will be paid for. They are concerned that their dues might increase from $1,000 to $3,500. This is a make or break question. Virginia law entitles the buyer to disclosure of HOA governing documents, corporate records and financial reports before going to closing on purchase of property. These disclosures are supposed to educate buyers about their rights and responsibilities to the HOA for as long as they own the property. In reality, buyers have many things on their minds during this exciting and stressful time. Their busy lives are consumed with urgent matters. They attend the home inspection and negotiation of any repairs. They come up with the down payment and approval from their mortgage lender. An excited family member may be dismissive of any questions or red flags about the property. The purchase will require the buyers to move and have their lives disrupted. Many home buyers feel worn down by demands of the process. They want to avoid cancelling and starting all over. All the buyers know about the HOA may be from seeing neighboring houses, maybe some common areas like a pool or playground. What’s in the HOA disclosure packet or condominium resale certificate give the association great influence over the financial affairs and home life of the buyers. Virginia law requires that HOA disclosure packet to include the following statements and documents:
1. Name and registered agent of the association.
2. Approved expenditures that will require a special assessment.
3. Ordinary assessments or mandatory dues or charges.
4. Whether there are any other parties to which the lot owner may be liable for fees or charges.
5. Reserve study report or summary.
6. Current budget and financial balance sheet.
7. Any pending lawsuit or unpaid judgment that could have a material impact.
8. Insurance coverage provided and not provided by the association.
9. Whether any improvement to the property being sold is in violation of the governing documents.
10. Flag display restrictions.
11. Solar panel use restrictions.
1. Declaration & any amendments.
2. Articles of incorporation, bylaws & any amendments
3. Rules, regulations or architectural guidelines
4. Approved minutes of the board and owner meetings for previous six months
5. Notices of any pending architectural violations
6. Disclosure Packet Notice Form prepared by the Virginia Common Interest Community Board
7. Annual Report form filed with the state with officers and directors and other information
8. Federal Housing Administration lending approval statement
While many people aren’t familiar with these kinds of documents, they reflect the family’s future financial obligations to the HOA and restrictions on the use of the property. The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis was caused in part by mortgage lenders giving borrowers loan documents that they didn’t understand. The HOA covenants are also a source of confusion. Many buyers would never buy a home without using a home inspector, but they try to tackle the HOA disclosure packet themselves. Unfortunately, it is easier for an unaided consumer to eyeball things in the home that need repairs than make sense out of the HOA documents. The federal government requires mortgage lenders to provide borrowers with simplified statements of the loan terms to make them transparent. For HOAs, consumer protections are weaker. Virginia law gives the buyer only three days to cancel the purchase contract after receipt of the HOA disclosure packet. That might give a professional working in the real estate industry enough time to digest them. However, many ordinary consumers struggle to make this three-day review period a meaningful part of their decision-making. A buyer could negotiate with the seller for this three-day period to be lengthened in the language of the sales contract. Few ask for this because the disclosures in the sales contract do not suggest to the buyer that additional time might be necessary.
As more HOA horror stories appear in news articles and social media posts, consumers are more likely to read the HOA disclosure packet and ask questions like in today’s Washington Post article. Even if the buyer is familiar with community associations law, the governing documents may be vague, ambiguous or unclear about issues critical to the buyer’s use and enjoyment of the home. This is what the home buyers in the article discovered. Glink and Tamkin recommend that the buyers knock on the door of the HOA president and ask her point-blank about how the road repairs will be paid for. An officer who understands their leadership responsibilities well might provide a sufficient answer upon a direct request. However, in most situations this probably won’t achieve a satisfactory result. Educated officers and directors know that the HOA or condo board is only required to provide the information and documents referenced in the statutes. If the buyer is unsatisfied, they have to either exercise the contingency within the deadline or negotiate for an extension of the cancellation period and a follow-up request to the board. The HOA could employ dilatory tactics, inducing the buyer to inadvertently waive the right of cancellation while pursuing an answer to the question. The road expense issue is probably already a hot-button issue for this board with lots of HOA politics in play.
There is a disturbing issue about the facts described in this newspaper column that isn’t addressed by the article. The HOA is managed by its board and not by a property management company. The monthly dues for the property are $1,000. This means that the officers and directors are handling a huge budget themselves, making day-to-day property management decisions. Maybe the board consists of retired real estate professionals who do this as a hobby to benefit the community at no added benefit to themselves. Given the commitment required to manage such a large budget, this is probably not the case. This would be my number one question.
If the purchasers have questions about what the documents mean, they might ask their real estate agent. Realtors provide a lot of value to their clients because they negotiate sales transactions all the time. The agent may not be the best person to ask because she won’t receive a commission on the sale if the buyer gets cold feet and backs out. The disclosure packets contain legal documents that are designed to enforce restrictions in court should disputes arise. If an attorney or real estate agent might struggle to make sense out of the disclosure packet, a buyer who is not familiar with HOAs may only read a few pages before setting them aside and focusing their attention elsewhere. If consumers understood the HOA disclosure packet and made an intentional decision to go to closing or back out based on what they read, consumer trends and demands might force home builders to make HOAs more owner-friendly.
In theory, a buyer can retain independent attorneys and CPAs to review the HOA disclosure packet and answer questions. This would allow an educated decision whether to cancel within the short deadline. In reality, if the buyer doesn’t already have an attorney and/or CPA lined up at the beginning of the three-day period, it may already be too late. Let’s say the buyer spends a day trying to make sense of the HOA disclosure packet on his own. If the family cannot figure things out themselves, on the second day he might start calling around for an attorney. Unfortunately, almost all community association lawyers represent the associations themselves, big investors or developers. They do not normally represent homeowners. My firm is an exception – in my solo practice I never represent HOA boards. General practice attorneys often represent individual persons. However, to effectively advise the purchaser on short notice, the attorney must be familiar with the appellate court decisions concerning the HOA statutes and governing documents. Much of the law pertaining to community associations matters is found in court opinions, not just acts of the general assembly. Many general practice lawyers are very good but may not be familiar with these things. Assuming that the buyer does find an attorney who is a good fit, there still are time constraints. The buyer has to talk to the lawyer, hire him, and provide the documents. It may take the attorney more than an hour or two to review the documents to prepare to provide an overview and answer questions. All of this must be completed within 3 days (or whatever extended period agreed with the seller) so that the buyer can make a meaningful decision to exercise or waive the HOA contingency. Otherwise the buyer might lose their deposit and some other fees if they want to get out of the contract. The three-day period might work if the buyer hired the attorney beforehand. However, the terms and disclosures in the sales contract do not alert the buyer that such might be desired.
Don’t get me wrong. The HOA disclosure packet provides critical information and documents to consumers and does contain a right of cancellation. Doing away with it entirely would be a huge setback to property owners. Unfortunately, the deadlines and procedural features of the disclosure laws don’t do enough to protect consumers. My professional experience working with owners leads me to believe that many of them go to closing unaware of what they are getting into. This is not really their fault. Sometimes they don’t understand the extent of some restriction or obligation that the property is subject to. Also, owners have rights that they are often unaware of and could improve their situation if they knew about them.
One of the key statements in the packet is the Virginia Common Interest Community Board Disclosure Notice Form. This is a kind of “Miranda” warning to consumers about what it means to live in an HOA or condo. The current version is useful but could be improved. It doesn’t mention fines for rule violations. It states that the buyer is subject to all of the decisions of the Board. Yet an adverse decision of the board might be legally void or voidable if the owner acts promptly. The notice does not reference the statutes or common law principles that may dramatically affect the rights and obligations of owners. The packet notice does not point out to the buyer that they have a right to have their own attorney review the documents and answer their questions. If the buyer received a useful disclosure notice form at the time they signed the contract, then they might more carefully consider whether to hire an attorney, CPA or other professional to help them with the HOA disclosure packet. Also, if the statute allowed for a longer period of time for the contingency than three days, the buyer would not need to negotiate that in advance. These additional protections are necessary because the system that exists has a practical effect of limiting home buyers’ right to counsel.
Based on my own personal experiences with real estate, the stories I have read about other people’s experiences and homeowners I have spoken to, I believe that on a practical level, the HOA disclosure packet is an ineffective system of consumer protection. This is shown by the surprise that owners experience when they are victim of an abusive debt collection practice, an arbitrary architectural review decision or any other infringement of their property rights by an association. Fundamentally, the HOA disclosure packet procedure doesn’t work because consumers don’t understand how its contents help them find answers to any questions they might have.
What does a buyer need to know that isn’t found in the HOA disclosure packet? The courts are the branch of government that oversee HOA boards. The Supreme Court of Virginia has repeatedly held that the declaration is a written contract or agreement between the owners and the HOA. If you go to the Virginia Code looking for guidance on something not explained in the packet you might not find the answer there because of the nature of the legal system. The declaration, along with other real estate contracts are interpreted by court precedents for many issues. For example, if a party breaches a contract, they are entitled to remedies which might include money damages, attorney’s fees or an order for the other side to do something. An owner has an interest in knowing whether the declaration even makes the association qualify as an HOA. The system of remedies for breach of covenants is very important in the HOA context because that’s where the owner finds means of enforcing his rights. A wide variety of rules that pertain to HOAs are found in court opinions that aren’t neatly summarized in the disclosure packet or even in legislation.
Because the governing documents are written in legalese interpreted by court opinions and legislative enactments, the disclosure packet is not effective as a summary of the rights the HOA has over the property. The Washington Post column illustrates this. A buyer does not have the time to take a law class on community associations or enforcement of real estate covenants in the three days in which the disclosure laws give them to review it.
I hope that the General Assembly amends the statutes to provide stronger protections for buyers. If buyers knew what they were getting themselves into beforehand, they would be better educated to be owners or even board members. In the meantime, home buyers should prepare to retain advisors to help them understand the documents. If necessary, the buyer and seller can agree to expand the three-day waiting period. Ultimately, families must work with their own team to stick up for themselves and protect their rights. Owners owe it to themselves to adequately understand all of the rights and burdens that may come with the sacrifices made to purchase the property to begin with. Buyers should retain a qualified attorney to help them understand the documents before they even receive the HOA disclosure packet or condominium resale certificate.
For Further Reading:
Va. Code Section 55-509.5 (Contents of association disclosure packet; delivery of packet)
Va. Code Section 55-79.97 (Va. Condominium Act – Resale by Purchaser)
May 17, 2016
Can a HOA Represent Individual Landowners in Court without Their Permission? What gives an HOA or Condo Association standing to sue to address threats coming from outside the community, or to appeal administrative decisions by the government that affect the neighborhood? On April 22, 2016, the Circuit Court of Loudoun County issued an opinion that explains how an HOA’s power to represent its owners in the outside world is actually quite narrow. This case is important to anyone interested in the overreach of HOA powers. In matters involving real estate, the HOA only owns the common areas and easements granted in the covenants recorded in the land records. For an HOA to represent the interests of an individual owner’s property in court, specific authorization is required.
The Grenata Homeowners Association and the Evergreen SportsPlex are neighbors. Grenata is a 61 lot community in Leesburg, Virginia. Like many sports complexes, Evergreen SportsPlex uses powerful lighting to make its ballfields usable at night. In many places, sports complex lights are intense enough that passengers taking off or landing can see games in play from airplanes from a high altitude at night. Many people in Grenata find the glare from the Evergreen SportsPlex a nuisance. Personally, I dislike having streetlight glare come into my bedroom or hotel room at night. Loudoun County has a light ordinance that does not require residents to do this where the light problem reaches a certain point. I can understand why those owners brought complaints before Loudoun County, alleging that Evergreen SportsPlex violated the local light ordinance. (Pop star Cory Hart’s 1984 hit song, “Sun Glasses at Night” is the musical inspiration for this blog post) The zoning administrator issued a notice of violation. Evergreen SportsPlex appealed and the Board of Zoning Appeals reversed the decision, finding that the Evergreen SportsPlex lighting was compliant. The HOA and some of the individual owners appealed this adverse decision to the Circuit Court. The April 22, 2016 opinion of Judge Douglas Fleming rules on the County’s efforts to get the appeal dismissed without further litigation.
Much of Judge Fleming’s opinion addresses technical questions about whether the HOA or individual owners were effectively notified of the Board of Zoning Appeal’s decision and thus waived any right to appeal. The case also presents questions about Grenata HOA’s standing to appeal the Board of Zoning Appeal’s adverse decision on behalf of itself and its individual owners. Has Grenata rightfully interjected itself in this case if it is the individual owners who are impacted by the intense glare? There may be owners in the HOA who are not damaged by the SportsPlex lighting and would not stand to benefit from this litigation. The Court addressed Grenata’s claims of standing both as a property owner and as an owner representative:
HOA as a Representative Agent of Individual Homeowners:
Grenata HOA claimed to be an authorized representative agent of individual homeowners affected by this Board of Zoning Appeals decision. There are provisions in the covenants that authorized the HOA to bring lawsuits that the board deemed necessary. The Board of Directors made a written resolution specifically authorizing the appeal to be filed. The opinion does not discuss any provisions in the covenants that would specifically authorize the HOA to litigate on behalf of individual owners’ interests.
If Grenata succeeds on appeal, the owners living closer to the SportsPlex would benefit more than the ones living further away. All owners would be paying for this out of their assessments.
There is no provision of the Property Owners Association Act that specifically authorizes HOAs to appeal adverse land use decisions on behalf of individual “constituent” owners.
The Court found that there was no record in the Board of Zoning Appeal case that individual affected homeowners ever expressly authorized the HOA to pursue this appellate litigation on their behalf. However, since Grenata alleged in their appeal that there was, the Court viewed this as a factual dispute that would have to be resolved later on in the case.
The Court is making a subtle point about the limits of HOA powers. Just because a HOA Board of Directors decides that they want to pursue an appeal of a land use decision on behalf of several of their constituent owners doesn’t mean that they have the authority to do so. Only those individual landowners have standing to pursue the litigation unless they expressly authorized their HOA to do this. The language in the covenants is critical to assessing these authorization issues. The covenants could prohibit such actions by the board, with or without owner’s authorization, or they could provide specific circumstances where the HOA could do something like this without individual owner authorization. The analysis applied by the court appears to be in a situation where the covenants are silent on the issue.
In these types of cases it is usually best for the affected owners to retain their own counsel (either separate or joint representation, as appropriate) and explore these matters without involving the HOA. If an individual owner signs an authorization for the HOA to proceed, and the HOA Board is motivated to proceed, then the owner runs the risk that the HOA Board will pursue things in a manner in the interests of certain officers, the majority of HOA directors or owners. This could result in an outcome that might not be in the best interest of the affected owner. Also, many owners may be suspicious if the Board pursues legal action that is paid for by all owners but disproportionately benefits certain owners, who may be connected with board members. The case opinion does not delve into these internal HOA governance issues, so I don’t know if they come into play here.
HOA as an Impacted Property Owner:
Grenata HOA owned a few parcels of land approximately 480 feet from the SportsPlex, including a water supply and undevelopable “out-lots.” Grenata argued it had standing because it owned these nearby properties. The Supreme Court of Virginia has a test as to whether a neighbor has standing to challenge a land use decision:
- The neighbor must own or occupy property within close proximity to the property at issue (here the SportsPlex), thus establishing a direct, immediate, pecuniary and substantial interest in the decision.
- And they must demonstrate a particularized harm to some personal or property right, or a burden different from that suffered by the general public.
The County unsuccessfully argued that these common areas did not adjoin the SportsPlex and thus were not in close proximity. The court found that 480 feet was close enough to allow the appeal process to proceed. On argument the County pointed out that these common areas were undevelopable and thus of little or no market value. The Court determined that such value was not relevant to this determination. The court determined that the HOA had standing to pursue the appeal on the grounds because it sufficiently alleged that it was a proximate owner alleging a particularized harm not suffered by the general public.
A cheeky argument that lawyers for Evergreen Sportsplex or the County could make, but isn’t discussed in the opinion is that the SportsPlex lights actually confer a benefit on the HOA in its administration of the common areas. HOA’s have an obligation to their residents and guests to keep common areas well-lit if necessary to promote safety. If there is an area where storm runoff accumulates, or parking lots or perhaps some roads, it may benefit the community to have electric bills for lighting paid by Evergreen.
The Grenata case is far from over. The Circuit Court may ultimately dismiss the appeals of the HOA, individual owners or both. In Virginia, the factual determinations of the Board of Zoning Appeals are presumed to be correct by the Court unless a party successfully rebuts the presumption. The burden rests on the HOA and owners to show that the Board of Zoning Appeals made an incorrect determination.
Case Citation: Grenata Homeowners Association, et al. v. Bd. of Superv. of Loudoun Co. & EVG Land, LLC (Loudoun Co. Cir. Ct. April 22, 2016)(behind subscription paywall)
April 4, 2016
In the contemporary dystopia, property ownership provides ordinary people with space in which to live, work and play in peace, safety, and freedom. Americans also see real estate as an investment. My high school friend Tom was one of my first classmates to purchase a home. Years ago, he explained that the great thing about a home is that it is an investment and you also get to live in it. Unfortunately, there are many predators in the marketplace seeking to capitalize on consumers’ commitment to home ownership. Some loan servicers, debt collectors, and contractors see owners as opportunities. Their trade groups lobby state capitals. Owners have to stick up for themselves in Court and with their elected representatives to protect themselves from becoming someone else’s cash drawer. Sometimes unscrupulous people get what they want by conceptually framing a crisis to shape the perceptions of decision-makers. Fear is one of the easiest emotions to manipulate. Owners should be skeptical of how the housing industry describes the Zombie Foreclosure Apocalypse.
In a recession, financial struggles can render owners unable to make payment obligations to mortgage lenders and HOA’s. In many cases, these personal crises are temporary. Job loss or illness of the owner or a family member can cause a temporary but acute financial crunch. The problems may be fixable by a new job or resuming work after addressing a family member’s needs. Unfortunately, lenders and HOA’s tend to treat all defaults in payment obligations the same. In the past few years, HOA’s have waited for assessment income when banks delayed foreclosing on homeowners. In these so-called “zombie foreclosures,” banks delay completing foreclosures for years because there is little economic incentive to adding the distressed property to their own real estate inventory. If they buy the property, they become responsible for it as the new owner. Usually the owners stop paying their HOA dues around the time they can’t pay their mortgage. The HOA industry sees themselves suffering financial losses at the hands of loan servicers who fail to timely foreclose and put a new owner in the property with the willingness or ability to pay the HOA assessments.
On March 25, 2016, Dawn Bauman posted an article on the Community Associations Institute’s (“CAI”) blog titled, “Clean Up Foreclosures in Your Community.” Ms. Bauman argues that because the banks delay foreclosure, other owners must pick up the tab of the struggling neighbor to support an HOA’s budget. This blog post calls upon neighbors to file citizen complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) when banks delay foreclosing on neighboring homes. The blog post contains links and instructions for submitting complaints. I understand Ms. Bauman’s point that Boards might have to make budget changes if there is a spike in “zombie” foreclosures. These budget decisions might include increasing dues for other owners, slashing budgets or even raiding reserves to pay for major repairs. However, I’m not convinced that a campaign to expedite foreclosures would really advance the interests of other owners. As films and books such as “The Big Short” illustrate, the foreclosure crisis is a complex phenomenon. When a borrower falls into default, wouldn’t the community’s interests be better advanced by helping them get back on track with their existing lender and HOA? There is no guarantee that the CFPB would have the resources, authority and/or will to take regulatory action upon receipt of a complaint submitted through web forms on the internet. This CAI blog post seems to perpetuate the stereotype of debt collection as the common denominator of a HOA community. Yes, communities require accountability, but that should go both ways.
What is happening here? Imagine that a prospective buyer met with a realtor or property manager to discuss a home in an HOA. What if the real estate professional candidly told the prospective buyer that in this community, if you default on your mortgage, your neighbors and HOA will contact regulatory authorities to make sure the bank expedites your eviction. The prospective buyers are expected to also do the same against to their neighbors. The home shoppers innocently ask, “Why is this?” The manager candidly explains that the local government has outsourced its functions to the HOA. That HOA has a big budget. The locality and the HOA have an interest in keeping property assessments high. If the homebuyers are rational, they will walk out of that meeting and never come back to that development. Home owners want neighbors who support each other, or at least leave each other alone. No one wants to live in a community where neighbors are expected to tattle. If that’s necessary, then there is something wrong with the community association model. To sustain themselves, the community associations should seek to advance the interests of their members and not the other way around. The task of creating communities traditionally belonged to local governments, developers and the owners themselves. However, real estate is also a national policy concern because of the roles of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the CFPB and a host of other federal agencies. At a March 29, 2016 town hall meeting, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump identified “housing, providing great neighborhoods” was one of the top three responsibilities of the federal government. Such statements are easily dismissed as political pandering. However, Mr. Trump, however controversial, seems to have a knack at getting into the minds of many voters.
When an owner falls into a persisting default, usually the lender, HOA, and local government want to start over with a new owner. In fact, the HOA industry and local governments want to work together to eliminate these “zombie foreclosures.” Fairfax County holds an annual “Community and Neighborhood Leaders Conference” to provide face-time between HOA board members and county agencies with authority to enforce laws and ordinances. This alliance puts the elderly and disabled at a particular disadvantage when it comes to complying with local ordinances about how property should be maintained. Owners may find their lenders, HOA’s, and local governments taking action against their property interests.
If owners find themselves in default of their loan and assessment payment obligations, what can they do to protect their financial interests and property rights? Fortunately, there are some strategies that work.
- Avoid Falling into Default in the First Place. If the owner isn’t in default, then the lender or HOA doesn’t have a basis to institute foreclosure or debt collection proceedings. For many owners, the financial crunch of making the payments is less costly than digging themselves out of a persistent default.
- Know Your Rights. Many owners rely upon what bank representatives or HOA board members say in order to determine their rights. However, in court a judge can be expected to apply what the mortgage or HOA documents say to resolve any dispute. Owners should organize and understand the applicable legal documents and not rely on hearsay.
- Have a Plan. The bank representative or property manager is not going to take the lead on how to resolve the payment default. Debt collectors are looking to get paid as much as possible and/or to push the owner out. The owner must determine whether they want to keep or relinquish the property. The circumstances of each case are unique and which strategies to employ is outside of the scope of this post.
- Present Well. If a property appears to be abandoned, then the local government, HOA, and lender will treat it as such and move aggressively. If an owner keeps the property up, they are less likely to be bullied. Likewise, in negotiating with a lender’s or HOA’s representatives, an owner should consider how their actions and works are likely to be interpreted. If the owner has unrealistic expectations or appears to show signs of weakness, then the industry professionals are less likely to take them seriously.
- Have a Team. Board members, property managers, and collection attorneys are working together to maximize the accounts receivable of the HOA and minimize their own hassle. The lenders have account representatives and lawyers to service the loan. Owners should have a team of their own. Allies in a community can look out for each other and guard against bullies. Many state legislators want to take up the cause of property ownership. Lenders and HOA’s have experts and attorneys of their own on call to advance their interests. Out of experience they are able to think two or three steps ahead of consumers. If a lender or HOA behaves in a mysterious manner, it may be that they contemplate future legal action. Many times owners need legal assistance of their own.
An owner who struggles with financial difficulties is not a “zombie.” What is really “undead” is the complex web of loan documents, HOA rules, and public policies putting an owner’s property rights and financial condition at unnecessary risk. Financial challenges do not have to result in intractable crises. When told about the pending Zombie Foreclosure Apocalypse, owners need to understand what is really “undead.” The industry should educate and advocate for owners in these situations in order to keep the HOA model from turning into an unsustainable dead end. Until then, owners must work together and with qualified professionals to protect their rights.
UPDATE: Check out my April 23, 2016 “On the Commons” podcast with HOA attorney Jeremy Moss and Host Shu Bartholomew. We discuss the Zombie Foreclosure phenomenon and what it means for HOAs and owners.
October 26, 2015
My 4-year-old nephew loves dinosaurs. His favorite is the Triceratops. Before my sister gave birth to her second son, their family discussed names for the new baby. My nephew wanted to name his little brother “Brachiosaurus.” Needless to say, his parents outvoted him on that! He would love to live in the New Territory Residential Community Association in Fort Bend, Texas.In New Territory, Nancy Hentschel pastured two large dinosaur sculptures in her front yard. The Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor caught the attention of her neighbors and news organizations. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Hentschel reported that, “I’ve never had so many people knock on my door, say hello, tell me they love the dinosaurs, and as if they can take pictures.” The “dino duo” received hundreds of likes on social media. Her HOA sent a disapproving notice stating that she violated the rules by erecting an unauthorized “addition” to her home. Are dinosaurs a nuisance? Hentschel admitted that she knew that the HOA would object to the statues when she bought them. “This is a form of art but it is also a form of protest.” In a September 12, 2015 interview with Shu Bartholomew on the radio show, “On the Commons,” Hentschel described an earlier dispute she had with her Board of Directors. The HOA’s leadership cited her for having a crack on the surface of her own driveway. The board members went so far as to come to her property and get down on their hands and knees to measure the crack for purposes of issuing the violation. Hentschel protests the use of HOA authority to create fear in her community. In her interview, she remarked about how it’s not conformity and uniformity that create property values or a sense of community.
My wife and I have cracks in our own driveway. They were there when we purchased the property. They didn’t factor much in our decision to buy the house. I’m sure that other prospective purchasers didn’t care much about the driveway cracks either. Sometimes I think that I’m the only person who ever notices them. Although we live on a busy street, I’ve never had a neighbor or visitor complain about them. When I applied crack filler a year ago, the compound cracked when it dried. Once a concrete or asphalt surface has cracks, winter ice can freeze in it, causing the surface to progressively deteriorate. As someone who drives into the District of Columbia regularly, I am stridently anti-pothole in my political outlook. Somehow, I suspect that the motivation of Ms. Hentchel’s board was not a paternalistic effort to save her family from future potholes in her driveway.
Hentschel is not the first homeowner to violate a HOA rule in intentional protest or knowing indifference to HOA rules. Sometimes homeowners deliberately paint their house in an unsanctioned color. Others erect American flags or religious symbols in attempts to exercise freedom of speech. Hentschel’s dinosaur display is different. Her “civil disobedience” is not manifested in mundane details like trash can storage or serious concerns about expression of core personal commitments. Instead, she her display is humorous and fun.
When I first heard about the Texas Dinosaur controversy, it reminded me of Dinosaur Land here in Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley is a tourism hot-spot. Dinosaur Land is a roadside attraction near Winchester, Virginia. For around $5 a person, tourists can tour a private park with dozens of large dinosaur statues. It’s been in business for decades (statues are easier to care for than live creatures). You can imagine the kid appeal. After a day of following one’s parents around civil war battlefields and nature sites, the novelty of dinosaurs is irresistible. People are willing to pay to take their children to see this, at least once. In Texas, Ms. Hentschel has created a small-scale Dinosaur Land in her front yard. She isn’t charging anyone any fees. In fact, as of September 12th she had a waiting list of neighbors who want to borrow the dinosaurs to graze on their own lawns. She only asks them to make a $50.00 donation to a charity of their choice. In my opinion, by keeping the dinosaur statues as livestock, Nancy Hentschel made her community more desirable, at least for now. This makes her dispute with her HOA interesting from a property rights perspective. What she’s doing looks like a lot of fun, although she must be prepared to pay the price if her HOA decides that they don’t care about public perceptions and decides to go full force in litigation. That’s something one has to be ready for when breaking the rules to prove a point. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Hentschel’s dinosaurs are a fun twist on the “spite fence” phenomenon. Periodically neighbors end up in litigation because one or both of them set up a fence or other structure for the purpose of harassing, intimidating or displeasing their neighbor. In 2007, one of these went up to the Supreme Court of Virginia. Thomas and Teresa Cline lived in Augusta, a rural county in Virginia. The Clines had a history of disagreements with their neighbor Roy Berg. Berg decided to construct an 11 foot tall tripod with motion sensors and floodlights pointing at the Clines’ windows. To make things even creepier, Berg installed surveillance cameras to watch the Clines on his television. After Berg refused to take down the floodlights and cameras, the Clines constructed a 32 foot high fence made of 20 utility poles. They attached plastic sheeting to the poles to block the intrusive lights and cameras. Berg sued the Clines, alleging that the fence was a nuisance to the community. The Clines asserted an “unclean hands” defense. They argued that the surveillance and floodlight apparatus disqualified Berg from asserting the nuisance claim. The county court found in favor of Berg and ordered the Clines to remove the fence because it was an eyesore. The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed, finding that the judge should have applied the doctrine of “unclean hands” to dismiss Berg’s suit. Cline v. Berg illustrates the difficulties inherent in these intractable neighbor disputes. In efforts to get it right, Courts can struggle with the question of who to punish and how. If Berg’s case is dismissed, then both of the spite structures would remain. No problems are solved. If the Court orders the Clines to remove the fence, then they are punished for their “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” reaction. However, the lights and cameras would remain a problem.
Contrast the structures in Cline v. Berg with Ms. Hentschel’s dinosaur display. Kids love walking past dinosaurs and taking selfies in front of them. They distinguish Hentschel’s property. In the Cline case, the tripod and fence served no beneficial purpose outside of the neighbor conflict. In one case, there is fun and an increased sense of community, and in the other a scorched earth war. They are two ways to blowing off steam, with different effects on the community.
Property owners finding themselves in a dispute with a neighbor or community association, where rational discourse isn’t working may struggle with what to do next. Do I continue to suffer the indignity without complaint? Lash out by erecting a fence or other structure that serves no positive value? Bring a lawsuit? In a continuing education course I once attended, an experienced attorney explained that when these kinds of disputes arise, he asks the client if they have considered erecting a reasonable fence along the boundary of the property, as shown by the surveyor. Fences and walls define relationship boundaries in a physical way. When someone erects a fence, if their neighbor doesn’t like it, the burden is on them to bring suit requesting that the fence come down. Ms. Hentschel’s dinosaurs illustrate yet another alternative. I don’t know whether the dinosaurs violate her HOA covenants or not. If she broke the rules, at least she did it with something of popular value. In Virginia and other states, courts construe HOA covenants according to contract law. Where little damages are provable, potential court remedies may be limited. The outcome of particular cases will vary according to the facts and circumstances. If your neighbor or community association are interfering with your rights to use your own property, don’t give them the pleasure of responding to the provocation with an attack, escalating the conflict in a risky way. Contact qualified legal counsel to explore alternatives to protecting your rights. In many cases, review of a land records search and updated boundary survey may reveal overlooked possibilities for a favorable solution.
For More Information:
Photo Credit (Dinosaur Land Photo):
February 5, 2015
A property association’s board of directors has the controversial power to issue and enforce fines against its members for rule violations. When an owner receives a threatening notice from the association, it is not always clear what options are available other than to simply obey the demand. This blog post summarizes the process of association rule enforcement and homeowner rights to protect their interests.
When an investor creates a new condominium, townhouse or detached single family home development, he usually makes them subject to covenants to be enforced by an association. The investor files covenants in the county land records, placing all future purchasers on notice that owners of homes in the development are subject to the covenants, bylaws, rules and regulations of the association. Virginia courts interpret the legal relationship between the association and the owner like a contract. There is a hierarchy of authorities defining the respective rights of the associations and owners:
- State Law. An Association must follow the Condominium Act or the Property Owners Association Act. The covenants, rules and regulations may not contradict state law except where those statutes may allow variance from their provisions.
- Association Instruments Recorded in Land Records. This means declarations, covenants, bylaws, amendments, etc. These documents control the governance of the association and its powers to adopt rules and fine owners.
- Resolutions, Rules and Regulations. State law and the covenants and bylaws set out the association’s powers to adopt rules. The rules and regulations are subject to both state law and also the recorded covenants and bylaws. The power to adopt and enforce rules is held by the board of directors, who answer (at least on paper) to the owners in exercise of their own voting rights. Sometimes it can be difficult for an owner to determine which documents are formally adopted rules and which are “policy documents” published by some individual with the intent that the owners follow them but that don’t carry the authority of a formal rule. This is why the minutes and resolutions of the board are important.
The laws, land records and resolutions are all separate, sometimes contradictory documents that speak to an association’s board of director’s authority to fine owners. The board’s notices of an alleged rule violation can be confusing. When threatened with a fine, what strategies are effective for a homeowner to protect her rights? The facts and circumstances of each case are different, but three strategies may be applied in a variety of situations:
- Keep Property Records. A homeowner should maintain files (either in a paper filing system or on a computer) of documents from the purchase of the home and all association documents such as covenants, rules, regulations, resolutions or correspondence from the property manager or board members. In the event of a dispute, these files may be necessary to support the homeowner’s position. Also keep records of all estimates, contracts, purchase orders, invoices, payments for all repairs and maintenance to the property. In general, homeowners who keep good files tend to have fewer legal disputes and resolve them more easily and favorably than those who don’t.
- Build Rapport with Neighbors. Whenever possible, have as good relations with one’s neighbors as possible given the personalities involved. Amicable relationships create mutually beneficial alliances (This does not necessarily require being BFF’s). However, association representatives may try to convince a homeowner that they are letting their neighbors down by not obeying a violation notice. However, a friendly relationship with others subject to the same covenants and rules can serve as a reminder that one’s neighbors usually are not crazy about the rules enforcement either.
- Promptly and Politely Assert Rights. Upon receipt of a notice of rule violation, many homeowners are often tempted to ignore it. If it is not reasonable or easy to understand, is it really a threat? Unfortunately, notices are usually followed by a notice for a hearing where a fine may be determined. The owner is entitled to be present at this hearing and be represented by an attorney, if desired. After that, the association may attempt record a lien in land records, file a lawsuit at the courthouse, or both. A homeowner’s rights are easier to defend earlier in the process than after something adverse happens. board directors or property managers may tell an owner that they must comply with the notice of rule violation in order to “protect the property values” in the Association. However, home buyers rarely ever compare the rules and regulations with the appearances of the homes when they are conducting their home buying process. An association covenant that a home is encumbered with does not improve its value. In fact, it represents a future liability in the form of monthly assessments.
If you are a homeowner and you are unsure whether your association is properly conducting its rule enforcement proceeding against you, promptly contact a qualified attorney to protect your rights.
November 11, 2014
Today, on Veterans Day, I would like to honor veterans who have served our country. Many of them return to civilian life and make additional, substantial contributions to their communities. A few go on to struggle to protect the property rights of themselves and others. In some cases, HOA’s may even attempt to foreclose on home of a veteran for flying the flag of the United States.
Larry Murphree’s Experience in Florida with Association Flower Pot Rules:
Larry Murphree is a U.S. military veteran who owns a residential unit in the Tides Condominium at Sweetwater in Florida. In 2011, he began to display a small 11″ x 17″ flag in a flower-pot outside his front door. His Association asserted fines against Mr. Murphree and the parties found themselves in litigation. The parties reached a settlement wherein Murphree agreed to display the flag in accordance with the condominium instruments. I first heard Mr. Murphree’s story on an October 18, 2014 interview by Shu Bartholomew on her radio show and podcast, “On the Commons.”
After the settlement, the Association adopted new guidelines which permitted display of one american flag, but only in a bracket near the street number plate. The new rules prohibited owners from displaying the flag during bad weather or at night. The military and other U.S. government facilities have more rigorous etiquette for display of the American flag than what is required of private citizens. The new rules the Tides Condominium may have been an attempt to shame Mr. Murphree for not following the military flag etiquette, which a private citizen is not ordinarily required to observe.
The Association also adopted new rules for potted plants. The Association only allowed one pot, which may only contain plants and a maximum of three self-watering devices. This Association found it is necessary to regulate what items may be placed in flower-pots on the doorstep of unit owners. Undoubtedly, there are cases where neighbors erect obstructions which infringe upon the rights of their neighbors. However, Mr. Murphree’s flag does not appear to be an albatross. At Mr. Murphree’s website, http://letmeflytheflag.com, you can see the small flag display from the street view.
Mr. Murphree decided to continue to display the American flag in the flower-pot. The Association began to assess fines a $100.00 per day. They now want to foreclose on his property for the unpaid fines. The parties are in litigation again. On March 32, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida published an opinion deciding, among other things, that the First Amendment protections do not apply against non-governmental entities like a homeowner’s association. The Court also ruled that the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 does not provide for a right to sue a property association. It is my understanding that the litigation currently continues in Florida state court.
What About Virginia?:
In 2009, retired army veteran Colonel Van Thomas Barfoot’s association ordered him to remove a 21-foot flagpole that he used to fly the American flag. Mr. Barfoot earned the Medal of Honor and served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Barfoot won his dispute, but not without help from two senators and a former governor. Ted Strong discusses Mr. Barfoot’s story in a November 2, 2014 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In Virginia, both the Property Owners Association Act and the Condominium Act contain provisions relating to the federal Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005. These state laws disallow associations from prohibiting owners, “from displaying upon property to which the unit owner has a separate ownership interest or a right to exclusive possession or us of the flag of the United States” where such display complies with federal law. However, the statutes do allow the association to:
establish reasonable restrictions as to the size, place, duration, and manner or placement or display of the flag on such property provided such restrictions are necessary to protect a substantial interest of the association.
In condominiums, balconies, patios and doorways are usually what’s called “limited common elements.” This would limit the usefulness of these legal protections to a homeowner desiring to display the flag in such areas.The statute does not define what “substantial interests” an association may have that would need to be protected from display of the American flag. The provisions state that the association bears the burden of proving the legitimacy of the restrictions. It is remarkable that the same government that authorize a HOA’s exercise of power would allow them to restrict or forbid a citizen’s right to display that government’s flag. The Richmond Times-Dispatch article does not discuss what federal or state statutes played a role in the outcome of Mr. Barfoot’s case.
Associations become more prevalent each year. Kirk Turner, Director of Planning of Chesterfield County told Mr. Strong that around 100% of new developments of at least 20 lots have mandatory associations: “From our standpoint, we actually encourage the creation of an HOA.” Henrico County Attorney Joseph Rapisarda explained: “To me, the HOA is like a mini-government.” If a HOA is indeed a “mini-government,” then a homeowner might expect constitutional protections normally provided against governmental intrusion. From the owner’s perspective, if the HOA has the authority of a mini-government but not the legal restrictions, that makes homes subject to association covenants less valuable. In her interview of Mr. Murphree, Ms. Bartholomew observed that to the owner, the value of property is what the owner does with the property, not what it would sell for. I can see how difficult it might be for a comparable sales analysis to account for the exercise of association powers.
If your association is taking action against you for display of the American flag or any other political or religious symbols, contact a qualified attorney.
October 16, 2014
How are Virginia homeowners to evaluate competing threats from their mortgage bank and property association foreclosure? For many years, owners unable to pay their bills associated with their homes have focused on the threat of foreclosure from their mortgage lender.
Homeowners’ Varying Obligations to Lenders and Property Associations:
The conventional wisdom, in Virginia at least, is that homeowners should focus on keeping bills paid in the following priority: (1) local property taxes (have priority as liens, and are non-dischargable in bankruptcy), (2) mortgage lenders (monthly payments largest) (3) the monthly dues and special assessments of the homeowners association or condominium unit owners association. These notions are reinforced by mortgage lenders who escrow property taxes but not association assessments. Should owners continue to follow this in making decisions in the face of risk of payment default? Tax liens will certainly continue to enjoy a super-priority. However, a unit owner’s rights and responsibilities to their community association are of a different nature than bank mortgages. The rights of Associations to fix dues, special assessments and fines change. The General Assembly can amend the statutes. Courts make new legal interpretations. The owners can vote to change the Association Bylaws. Although the Association has significant influence over a unit owner’s rights, its lien is often overlooked to the detriment of many owners. What foreclosure, rights, if any, may an Association use to enforce its assessments? Florida and Nevada tend to be bellwethers of national trends in property associations because of their extraordinary number of condominiums and other associations. One recent case illustrates the chaos that may arise from these competing claims.
Las Vegas Foreclosure Contest Between HOA, Bank and U.S. Government:
On September 25, 2014, Judge Gloria Navarro of the U.S. District Court for Nevada issued an opinion providing clues to how Virginia homeowners may one day find themselves caught up in legal crossfires between banks and HOA’s. Emiliano & Martha Renteria owned a single-family home in Las Vegas that was a part of the Washington & Sandhill Homeowners Association (“HOA”). This is not a condominium but the issues are analogous. In September 2009, they defaulted on their Bank of America mortgage. Like Virginia, Nevada allows non-judicial foreclosure proceedings wherein title is transferred transactionally. The Court becomes involved if there is a dispute. In July 2012, the Bank-appointed Trustee foreclosed on the property. Five months later they rescinded that foreclosure. In May 2013, the Bank completed a foreclosure (in a do-over), claiming title to the property. On May 17, 2013 the Bank conveyed the home to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development in a claim under the Single Family Mortgage Insurance Program.
To make matters more confusing, the HOA pursued its own foreclosure proceedings on the property at the same time to enforce its lien for the Renteria’s failure to pay their assessments. Most of the procedural aspects of Nevada condominium foreclosures are substantially different from Virginia. The HOA purchased the Renteria property at its own foreclosure sale in May 23, 2012, before the Bank’s first foreclosure sale. In July 2012, the HOA filed a release of its lien. A couple of months later, the HOA resumed its foreclosure, asserting an unpaid assessment lien of $4,983.00, this time against the Bank as owner. In October 2012, the HOA reacted to the Bank’s conveyance of the property to HUD, asserting a lien of $1,250.00 against the government. Note that this association foreclosed on a single-family home in an urban area to satisfy only $1,000-$5,000. When those demands went unpaid, the HOA abandoned this position. On October 9, 2013, the Association filed a federal lawsuit claiming ownership pursuant to the May 23, 2012 sale. In the lawsuit, the HOA disputed the Bank and HUD’s claims of title.
On September 18, 2014, the Supreme Court of Nevada ruled in a similar case that a HOA foreclosure extinguishes a mortgage lien such as that held by the Bank. Local readers may be interested that on August 28, 2014, the D.C. Court of Appeals reached a similar decision. In Nevada, Judge Navarro discussed how it is illogical for the HOA to simultaneously claim to be the rightful owner of a property and also assert an assessment claim against another party as owner. She found that under Nevada law, the Association was not permitted to waive its right to extinguish the Bank’s prior lien through foreclosure. The Court decided that the HOA’s subsequent release of the lien against the Renterias and new liens against the Bank and HUD were not valid because it had no right to change course. Had an individual investor purchased the property from the Bank’s foreclosure following the HOA’s release, he would have found himself caught up in this mess. The Court did not discuss whether these latter actions also created unwaivable rights. Judge Navarro ultimately decided that the HOA claim of title violated the U.S. Constitution. She dismissed of the Association’s lawsuit on the grounds that the HUD enjoyed an interest in the property under the Single Family Mortgage Insurance Program that could only be released under federal law. The Property Clause of the Constitution states that, only “Congress has the Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” Since the Bank’s mortgage was HUD-insured, a HOA cannot violate the government’s rights as insurer. This case is currently on appeal.
All of this caught my attention because it illustrates how HOA’s and Banks may use nonjudicial foreclosure procedures to duel over residual rights in distressed real estate. This case illustrates, if nothing else, why title examination and insurance are valuable investments to individual investors who may find themselves caught up in such a case. Well-advised home buyers must study the association bylaws and other disclosures carefully before waiving the contingency. If legal developments like this continue, associations will likely require a substantial legal reform. Otherwise, property values, especially condominiums will be in jeopardy, banks may restrict financing in fear of HOA lien priority, and investors may lose interest.
Will a Reordering of Rights of Banks and HOA’s Come to Virginia?
The competing rights of HOA’s and Banks is a critical aspect of the foreclosure crisis. On October 2, 2014, Nevada real estate attorney Bob Massi was interviewed on cable news about trends in HOA foreclosures. He predicted that lenders will start requiring borrowers to make their HOA payments into a bank escrow so that the lender’s foreclosure rights are not prejudiced by unpaid assessments.If this becomes a reality, mortgage servicers will become collection agents for associations. What remedies will owners have with respect to the escrow if they have disputes with the association over a fine? Will lenders change their underwriting guidelines to make loans more difficult for property subject to association covenants?
I expect that the issue of HOA lien priority will soon return to the Virginia Supreme Court and General Assembly. What responses to these trends can homeowners expect in Virginia? In a later installation in this new blog series about Association Foreclosure, I will discuss how a 2003 Supreme Court of Virginia decision presently limits a Condominium Association’s remedies for unpaid assessments. This Virginia opinion limits the rights of Virginia’s community association to disturb a lender’s rights under a purchase money mortgage. Given these new developments in Nevada and D.C., this 11-year-old opinion is important to every owner, association and lender with an interest in Virginia condominiums.
If you are a lender and have questions whether an association’s lien has priority over your own mortgage, contact qualified legal counsel. If you are an owner and have questions whether an attempt by your association to enforce a lien on your property runs afoul of the law or your condominium instruments, contact a real estate attorney to protect your rights.
Case citation: Washington & Sandhill Homeowners Association v. Bank of America, et al., No. 2:13-cv-01845-GMN-GWF (D.Nev. Sept. 25, 2014)(Navarro, J.).
Thanks to Shu Bartholomew, host of the weekly property rights radio show “On the Commons,” for letting me know about the Bob Massi interview.
October 1, 2014
The classic image of a homeowners association is a neighborhood with stately homes or attractive townhouses. Owners occupy their own properties. Neighbors socialize with one another, perhaps around a park, golf course, tennis court or swimming pool. The common areas make the development an attractive place to live. Common values of commitment and neighborly respect inform stewardship of common areas and management of the association’s business. Desire to achieve this ideal motivates many land development and home buying decisions. According to Virginia Lawyers Weekly, there are 5,645 registered community associations in Virginia, and several thousand more unregistered ones. That’s a lot of roads and other common areas that are neither individually owned nor maintained by local governments. If someone recklessly drives their car on those association-owned roads, who has the authority to pull them over?
On August 13, 2014, Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia released an official advisory opinion addressing the question of homeowner associations and traffic stops. State Senator Bryce Reeves asked Mr. Herring whether a HOA may enforce violations of state or local traffic laws on its private streets and whether and how a HOA may adopt and enforce its own rules regulating traffic (Sen. Reeves’ district includes Fredericksburg, Orange County, and some surrounding areas). The Attorney General’s opinion is about the intersection between HOA law and traffic law. Mr. Herring outlines two options for associations: (1) ask the city or county in which their community is located to police the streets, or (2) they may use private security qualified as Special Conservators of the Peace.
Why is this issue coming up in 2014? The economic collapse beginning in 2008 affected homeowners associations in several ways:
- Many homeowners stopped paying their association dues along with their mortgage. This hit HOA’s in the wallet.
- Foreclosures negatively affected the property values, slowing down sales of neighboring properties.
- Renting became a way of life for many people struggling to save for 20% on a down payment for a home. For Associations, this means that many residents are tenants, who take a different perspective from owner-occupants regarding common areas and their neighbors.
What better words to describe such a dystopia than lyrics from one of the worst pop songs of the 1980’s:
Say you don’t know me or recognize my face
Say you don’t care who goes to that kind of place
Knee deep in the hoopla, sinking in your fight
Too many runaways eating up the night.
– Starship, “We Built this City” (1985)
Developers sought to create oases where children could safely play and parents could develop long relationships with neighbors. Now in some HOA’s, security patrols are chasing residents, tenants and guests for traffic violations.
The Attorney General Opinion describes an unnamed association (within Sen. Reeves’ district) that directed its safety patrol to stop moving vehicles and issue citations for traffic infractions such as speeding, reckless driving and failure to obey highway signs. The safety patrol even uses vehicles with flashing lights to pull over drivers over. Through the safety patrol, the association holds property owners responsible for their infractions and those of their guests. This association has its own “court” in the form of a Violations Review Panel where homeowners may appear to contest citations.
Do associations have the authority to enforce traffic rules in this way? How much do HOA’s resemble local governments? In commenting on this opinion, community associations lawyer Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani of Alexandria told Virginia Lawyers Weekly that, “community associations exist in some respects to relieve demands for local government services such as traffic enforcement and road maintenance.” No doubt these developments ease cities and counties burdens to provide key infrastructure in many residential neighborhoods. Attorney General Herring’s opinion appears to disagree with Ms. Trigiani in a critical aspect. He observes that the Virginia Property Owners Association Act does not grant associations the authority to enforce violations of state or local traffic laws that occur on community property. Private persons may only enforce traffic laws if they have been appointed as a Special Conservator of the Peace (“SCOP”). To qualify as an SCOP, one must undergo substantial training. Otherwise, attempts to pull over or stop drivers could be deemed an “unlawful detention” by misrepresentation of authority to conduct police-like activities. Associations may ask the city or county in which their community is located to police the streets, or they may use private security qualified as SCOP’s. Virginia Lawyers Weekly‘s Peter Veith notes that extensive use of SCOPs may produce its own controversies, since the extent of an SCOP’s authority may be misunderstood by the security guard or the drivers on association roads. If someone produces a SCOP credential, what does that mean to an individual driver?
Attorney General Herring makes an important point about the statutory authority of HOA’s to enforce their rules and regulations over their common areas. “Rules and regulations may be enforced by any method normally available to the owner of private property in Virginia.” Real estate legal remedies are not tailored to enforcing traffic laws. Private property owners do not have the authority to conduct arrests or stops of vehicles for violation of traffic rules. That authority is reserved to law enforcement and SCOP’s. This limitation may also apply to other quasi-governmental activities undertaken by HOA’s.
In the Lake of the Woods Association in Orange County, the reaction to this Attorney General Opinion was swift. The Free Lance-Star reports that this large community went to the County Board of Supervisors which adopted an ordinance designating the LOWA roads as highways for law enforcement purposes. This will allow LOWA SCOPs to issue traffic citations and broaden the authority of local law enforcement in the community. I expect that similar decisions will be made in HOA’s around the state that have extensive systems of community roads.
If you or your Association seek to navigate safely through the regulatory landscape now coming into focus regarding the enforcement of traffic laws in community associations, contact qualified attorneys having experience in both real estate and traffic law matters to review your association’s legal instruments. Communities with extensive networks of roads should take precautions to get ahead of avoidable situations where HOA roads become hazardous or private security unlawfully detains drivers.