December 4, 2020
Homeowners disputes with HOAs and condominium associations frequently revolve around disputed demands for payments, large and small. Homeowners often wonder if they have to pay their monthly assessments if their HOA failed to fulfill an obligation. Generally speaking, if the assessments were legitimately determined by the HOA’s board of directors pursuant to its recorded instruments, then lot owners have to pay them. The assessments are made to fund the upkeep of commonly owned property. Ordinarily, the obligation to pay legitimately imposed assessments and the HOA’s obligations to its members are “independent covenants.” The lot owners usual remedy is to compel the HOA’s performance, not to withhold dues. However, under certain circumstances the owner must not voluntarily make a payment in order to preserve a legal challenge to the payment demand. This is because when an owner is in full knowledge of all of the facts, and makes the payment anyway, then it is as though he waived the legal challenge to the payment. Various courts recognize that application of the Voluntary Payment Doctrine can be harsh. Some consumer protection advocates call for its abolition. But as of 2020, it remains the law in Virginia. This rule has a number of important caveats and exceptions. The doctrine is particularly important in the context of the financial realities of community association life.
A 2020 court opinion from Missouri illustrates one way the Voluntary Payment Doctrine may be applied. Michael and Wendy Halliday owned a unit in the Malibu Shores Condominium, located on the Lake of the Ozarks. The Hallidays became delinquent on their assessments. In March 2016, the condominium obtained a $6,156.46 court judgment against them and lien against the condo unit. In May 2016, Randall Koeller and Jeff Haskenhoff purchased the unit at the sheriff’s sale. At that time, Jeff and Randall’s wife Angela were directors on the condominium board. Yes, dear reader, this is shady! It is not uncommon for people with family or business connections with an association board to purchase foreclosures, especially in a waterfront development where many are rentals or second homes. However, such connections may not insulate them from the risks and surprises that can come from investing in foreclosures. In June 2016, Randal and Jeff asked what the amount was of any lien. They were told that it increased to $8,154.00 because of additional months, finance charges, late fees, and attorneys’ fees. In fact, Jeff (who was a board member) assured Randall that this amount was correct. In July 2016, Randall and Jeff signed separate checks, each paying half of the updated demand. Later Randall and Jeff sold the unit to a third party at a profit.
But the story does not end there. Later, Randall and Jeff sued the condominium for allegedly misrepresenting the value and validity of the lien. The trial court found in favor of the association, finding insufficient evidence of misrepresentation, and ruling that by paying the sum, the two men could not later challenge its legality.
The Missouri Court of Appeals focused on the trial court’s application of the Voluntary Payment Doctrine. The Missouri rule is that a person who voluntarily pays money with full knowledge of all of the facts in the case, and in the absence of fraud and duress, cannot recover it back, even though the payment is made without sufficient consideration and under protest. The Missouri Court of Appeals explained the reason behind the rule.
a person who, induced thereto solely by a mistake of law, has conferred a benefit upon another to satisfy in whole or in part an honest claim of the other to the performance given, is not entitled to restitution. The underlying reason for those requirements is that it would be inequitable to give such a person the privilege of selecting his own time and convenience for litigation. . . .
In other words, when all the facts are known to the payor, the time for objecting is when the demand is made, not after the payment is made. In this case, Angela (the widow of Randall) and Jeff both were fully aware of the facts because they were also board members of the same association. This circumstance deprived them of the ability to claim that they were unaware of the facts relevant to their decision to make the payment. For this reason, the court deemed this to be purely a mistake of law, not of fact. In other cases where the association may claim voluntary payment, the homeowner may not be imputed full knowledge. In fact, many associations keep their owners in the dark about many decisions, including those that may affect specific lot owners in unique ways. This illustrates why directors may have legal problems when they do transactions with the association even though the deal may not be forbidden by the covenants or statutes. A purchaser who was less in the know may have been able to challenge the amount of the lien.
The Malibu Shores case concerned unique facts where the payor was imputed full knowledge of the facts because of their unique position as board members, transforming it into a purely legal question. In other cases, the question turns on whether the payment was voluntary or involuntary. For example, in a recent Supreme Court of Virginia case, Rene Williams obtained a money judgment against Kerry Ann Sheehy and recorded it in the land records where Sheehy owned property. After initiating an appeal, Sheehy sold the property, and Williams obtained a payoff check out of the real estate closing. In Virginia, a defendant forfeits her appeal if she voluntarily pays off a judgment. The Supreme Court of Virginia contrasted the voluntariness of a payoff of a lien in a real state closing with payments made by the defendant during post-judgment execution proceedings such as garnishments, levies, or judicial sales. Such post-judgment collection proceedings would constitute coerced payments that do not fit into the definition of a voluntary payment. The Supreme Court of Virginia noted that there may be coercion in the foreclosure context. The Supreme Court remanded the case for the trial court to determine whether the transactional payoff was in fact voluntary.
In D.R. Horton, Inc. v. Board of Supervisors of Warrant County, the Supreme Court of Virginia observed that for purposes of the Voluntary Payment Doctrine, it doesn’t matter if the payor submits a written protest of the legality of the demand at the time payment is made for purposes of determining voluntariness. However, in D.R. Horton, the Court recognized three exceptions to the Voluntary Payment Doctrine: (1) in the event of “an immediate and urgent necessity,” (2) the payment is made to release his person or property from detention and (3) to prevent an immediate seizure of his person or property. As seen by these cases, what constitutes a necessity, detention or seizure is akin to duress or coercion, and not just an inconvenience. Also, the Voluntary Payment Doctrine does not apply where the plaintiff is not suing for return of erroneously sums paid.
The state legislatures granted HOAs and condominium associations substantial legal powers by allowing recordation of a lien without first initiating a civil claim and reducing it to a judgment at trial. In a sense, the legislation blesses, through legal recognition, attempts to coerce owners to pay certain sums to their associations, be they assessments, fines, late fees, attorneys fees, interest. It is common for associations to overstep what they are entitled to charge. Sometimes representatives of an association do not want the owner to climb out of default, for various reasons. For many owners, payment of the lien is seen as less troublesome and more certain than mounting a legal challenge or defense. However, owners do not have to surrender to extortionary or overbearing tactics. How is one to know whether payment would be necessary to prevent further bona fide collections action or if it would constitute a waiver of legitimate claims? Often it may not be clear to the landowner whether making the payment or refusing to pay is the right thing to do. The answer may require review of the governing instruments in light of state law. There is a “big picture” to the HOA-owner relationship that frames the issues raised by a specific demand for payment.
Referenced Legal Authority.
NOTE: The photo associated with this blog post does not illustrate anyone specifically referenced in the text of the article.