March 15, 2017
Should Homeowners Bring Complaints Against Contractors Before Courts or Regulators?
Property owners frequently have complaints about construction contractors. Some of these complaints involve thousands of dollars in damage or serious infringement upon the use or value of property. These property owners (and their attorneys) want to know who to turn to. Should homeowners bring complaints against contractors before courts or regulators? This question raises issues about how the government ought to enforce its laws and resolve disputes. There is a perspective that regulatory boards ought to be a welcome forum for owners threatened or damaged by alleged contractor misconduct. In this blog post I will explain why I believe that, for all its imperfections, the judicial system is the best venue for vindication of legal rights in consumer disputes.
In 2015, the Court of Appeals of Virginia decided an illustrative case arising out of a complaint of a home purchaser about the seller’s contractor. Around 2002, Mark Holmes purchased an Alexandria, Virginia home, including an addition constructed by Culver Design Build, Inc. Mr. Holmes was unhappy about defective construction of the addition. He went to the city government, whom the General Assembly tasked with enforcing the building code in his locality. The City Code Administration found extensive water damage caused by construction defects and issued a Notice of Violation to Culver. Holmes was not satisfied with Culver regarding corrective work, so he filed a complaint with the Virginia State Board of Contractors. Holmes asked the Board to suspend Culver’s license until it corrected the violation. Culver Design Build, Inc. argued that Holmes did not have legal standing to seek judicial review of the Board’s ruling because this was a license disciplinary proceeding. The Holmes case also includes issues about how deferential the courts should be to a licensing agency’s administrative rulings. This case is unusual in that Mark Holmes represented himself in his appeal to the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Mr. Holmes acknowledged that unlike the seller, he lacked the privity of contract with the contractor which potentially could be used to go to court in breach of contract. The Court of Appeals agreed with Culver and the Board for Contractors.
When homeowners conclude that a state-licensed contractor or tradesperson committed a wrongful act depriving them of their home or damaging its value, it is easy to see why the aggrieved party would want a governmental agency to help them. Most people deal with governmental agencies much more than courthouses or law offices. Lawsuits require significant commitments to pursue or defend. Public resources go to supporting various agencies that have apparent subject-matter authority. This may appear to be a taxpayer-financed legal authority to go after the professional. However, this strategy often does little more than aggravate the licensed professional, the agency officials and the consumer. The Holmes v. Culver case illustrates one key weakness with homeowners pursuing consumer complaints through the professional licensure and disciplinary board process.
When consumers are harmed by unprofessional conduct, usually what they want is to have the defect corrected, an award of money or the transaction voided. These kinds of remedies are conventionally handled in the court system. The professional regulatory boards focus on licensure. They consider whether a business is properly licensed, should the license be suspended or revoked, should fines be assessed, and so on. Prominent members of the industry typically dominate these boards. For example, licensed contractors sit on the Board for Contractors. Initiating a professional licensure proceeding is a clumsy means of advancing the specific interests of the consumer having a transactional relationship with the business. It is the judiciary that can grant money damages or other remedies arising out of the formation and any breach of the contract. Regulators focus on whether disciplinary action is warranted regarding the registration or licensure of the business. In the Culver Design Build, Inc. case, the Board for Contractors and the Court of Appeals for Virginia agreed that Mark Holmes did not have standing to contest a regulatory decision in favor of the contractor. The board had authority to punish Culver for failing to abate a regulatory violation. However, the board had no authority to order the contractor to take any specific action at the job site. The board did not deny Homes any right or impose upon him any duty in its decision, because its authority revolves around Culver’s licensure. It is the State Building Code Technical Review Board that has the authority to review appeals of local building code enforcement decisions, not the Board of Contractors. One of the appeals judges suggested that if Holmes’ contentions were taken to a logical conclusion, the new buyer of the house could have greater leverage over a contractor than the previous owner, whose remedies may be limited by the contract. In his oral argument, Mark Holmes admitted that trying to resolve his complaints through the Board of Contractors complaint process was, “cumbersome and very long lasting.”
Even if the consumer unhappy with an adverse decision made by a regulatory agency in response to a complaint has standing, her appeal to the courts may encounter other obstacles. The licensure dispute is unlikely to starts afresh on appeal. The courts tend to be receptive to the agency’s interpretation of the legislature’s statutes. In Virginia, courts accord deference to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of its own regulations (as adopted by the board pursuant to the statutes). A consumer’s ability to raise new factual issues may be strictly limited in her attempts to get the courts to overturn the board’s decision. Judicial deference to agency rulemaking is not without controversy. Judge Neil Gorsuch, whom President Trump nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court is a high-profile critic of judicial deference to agencies. In his August 23, 2016 concurrence to a federal appeals decision Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, Judge Gorsuch explained that concentration of both legislative and judicial power in regulatory agencies creates constitutional problems. The constitution protects the public from authoritarianism by separating the government by the type of power, not the subject-matter. Under the constitution, the legislature prescribes new laws of general applicability. Taken to its logical conclusion, doctrine that courts should defer to agencies’ quasi-judicial determinations of what the statutes mean unconstitutionally undercuts the independence of the judiciary. The constitutional problems identified by Judge Gorsuch are illustrated in the arena of housing industry occupational regulation.
Where does this leave an owner when property rights are infringed by regulated professionals? Should everyone should go back to renting? Certainly not! This is what the independent judiciary is there for. Usually owners have privity of contract with the contractor and do not need to go to an agency. They can sue for remedies for breach of contract or deceptive practices. Consumer advocates with an interest in legislation should focus on increasing access to the court system and not promoting an administrative process that may not be a good fit for the homeowner. If you find yourself needing to bring or defend a construction claim, contact my office or a qualified attorney in your jurisdiction.
Homes v. Culver Design Build, Inc., No. 2091-13-4 (Va. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2015) (Alston, J.)
HOMES V. CULVER DESIGN BUILD, INC. APPELLATE ORAL ARGUMENT
Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, No. 14-9585 (U.S. Ct. App. 10th Cir. Aug. 23, 2016) (Gorsuch, J.)
ehpien Old Town Alexandria via photopin (license)
July 3, 2015
Do Your Association’s Parking Rules Pass the Smell Test?
There are few property rights as unappreciated as the privilege to park. For nine years, I lived in a condominium where the association’s parking lot did not have enough physical spaces for all of the permitted vehicles. If you came home late, you might have to park on the street several blocks away, even if you had a parking decal. The property manager arranged to tow all vehicles without a permit or guest pass after a certain hour in the evening. You didn’t want to run the risk of having to hitch a ride down to the towing company and “bail” your car out. I relied upon that small sticker in the rear window of my car every night.
An association’s parking rules effect the owners’ essential right to access one’s property. This means that whoever enforces community parking restrictions makes quality of life decisions for everyone. In many communities, the number of parking spaces permitted to a condominium unit defines the number of adults who can conveniently use it. If street parking is not readily available, guest passes define whether or not an owner can entertain anyone at their home. An association’s parking rules enforce someone’s vision for the character of the development. Residential associations typically refuse to issue parking permits for commercial vehicles. Commercial condominium associations may use parking restrictions to restrict undesired industrial uses.
The right to park at one’s property is easy to take for granted until threatened. If a HOA suspends privileges for a rule violation, the owner may be able to live without access to the pool, gym or party room. If the condominium documents allow revocation of parking permits for a violation, then this presents a greater threat to the resident. At a community association conference I attended this year, managers discussed whether it is feasible to enforce parking rules by using jersey walls to barricade owner’s garages!
Given the fundamental nature of the right of access, it is no surprise that landmark court decisions concerning community associations arise out of parking disputes. In 1982, the Supreme Court of Virginia decided Unit Owners Association of BuildAmerica-1 v. Gillman. BuildAmerica-1 was a commercial condominium consisting of a large industrial structure containing warehouse or garage condominium units. Undesignated parking spaces surrounded the building.
Harry & Saundra Gillman purchased space in BuildAmerica-1 for their trash collection business. After a few years, some of their neighbors complained about the odor of the Gillman’s trash trucks. The Association fined the Gillmans. They sought to force them to relocate by forbidding them from parking their trucks. A commercial condominium development can have the character of any number of office or industrial uses. Who wins when different owners have competing visions for a commercial condominium association? To the Supreme Court of Virginia, the answer lay with one of the fundamental, yet controversial, doctrines of community association law: The governing documents (covenants, declarations, bylaws) comprise a contract to which the owners are parties. A “covenant” is a legal agreement. Some homeowners’ rights advocates argue that boards, attorneys and managers abuse this doctrine by insisting that individual owners “agreed” to whatever policies and practices the association adopts. It is my opinion that the “contract” theory can actually help owners. How is this? A contract has the effect of limiting the scope of the rights and responsibilities of the parties. This can cut both ways, limiting the authority of the Association while also defining its affirmative duties to the owners. The “contract” is not each and every rule, regulation, decision, resolution or policy adopted or enforced by the Association and its agents. An owner can only be charged with such contractual obligations as are reflected in the declarations, covenants, bylaws, amendments that the owner is put on notice of in county land records and disclosed at the sale. Those documents are typically prepared by the developer’s lawyers. The governing documents are usually drafted to protect the developer and to be palatable to the initial investors at the sale. This means that often these documents don’t speak to the owner vs. association disputes that arise after the developer is out of the picture. Usually these disputes are about legislative amendments or Board-adopted regulations.
In Gillman, the Board adopted regulations forbidding owners from bringing more than three trucks onto the parking area weighing more than 10,000 pounds each. This rule was not a provision in the governing documents. So how are Virginia courts supposed to view the Board’s rules & regulations that are not in the covenants recorded in land records? In Gillman, the Supreme Court of Virginia set forth several very important standards:
- Rules Must be Reasonable. This is not a subjective test but one based on context.
- Rules Cannot Be Arbitrary or Capricious.
- Rules Must Not Violate a Fundamental Right. Does the rule violate the constitution or statutes?
- Rules Must Serve a Legitimate Purpose. The covenants should set out the fundamental character of the development (residential, industrial, office, mixed use, etc.) to provide some guidance as to the ostensible purpose of the Association’s existence. The issue of “legitimate purpose” has become more complicated now that many local governments mandate an association as part of the permitting process. If the Association has no other purpose than to fulfill a City or County ordinance, does this affect a Board rulemaking authority?
- Rules Must be Reasonably Applied. This includes uniform application to all owners fairly.
- The Board of Directors Must Not Abuse its Discretion.
The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the Circuit Court of Fairfax County’s decision to set aside the Association’s fine against the Gillmans. It reversed the Circuit Court’s decision to order the Gillmans to wash the trash trucks. Since the Gillmans prevailed, the Supreme Court set aside the award of attorney’s fees against them.
The Unit Owners Association of BuildAmerica-1 argued that they were a “self-governing community” and a “fully self-governing democracy” whose inherent powers are not limited. The Court rejected this and observed that while the powers of an association are broad, they are limited by statute. Gillman shows that association rules and regulations are not to be treated with the high level of deference owed to statutes or covenants. The only way to invalidate a regulation outside of the procedures in the Bylaws is by court review. If the rule or regulation your Association seeks to enforce violates your property rights contact a qualified attorney. Although the facts and circumstances of each case may result in different outcomes, judicial review may be a breath of fresh air to the prevailing “smell test” being applied within your Association.
Case Citation: Unit Owners Association of BuildAmerica-1 v. Gillman, 223 Va. 752 (1982).
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