Lawsuits against HOAs are expensive and time-consuming for all

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Common Interest Community, General Interest, HOA, John Tarley, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley | No Comments

A Virginia Circuit Court case highlights the expense and time commitment required when a homeowner sues a common interest community (referred to as “HOA” in this article). Furthermore, this case illustrates that HOAs can rarely predict or control when they may be dragged into a lawsuit.

In this case, Hornstein v. Federal Hill Homeowners Association, a homeowner had her house for sale with a pending sales contract. Pursuant to Va. Code Ann. § 55-509.5, the HOA provided a disclosure packet that revealed that the homeowner’s fence was not located on her property. In fact, the homeowner’s own survey confirmed that fact. The pending sales contract fell through.

The homeowner sued the HOA in Fairfax Circuit Court for slander of title and tortious interference with contract, including a claim for “bodily injury,” and “mental anguish.” The HOA prevailed in the case, leading to the homeowner’s petition for appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. [UPDATED: The Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear the case, meaning that the Circuit Court’s decision stands].

Another battle has been waged regarding whether the HOA’s insurance carrier had a duty to defend the HOA in the underlying litigation. When the HOA’s insurance carrier denied coverage and representation, the HOA sued the insurance carrier. The case was removed to the federal court. The 4th Circuit District Court agreed with the insurance carrier. The HOA appealed and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that the insurance carrier had a duty to defend. The insurance carrier has appealed for a rehearing. [UPDATED: the insurance carrier lost its appeal and was ordered to pay the HOA $217,308.86 for the attorneys’ fees the HOA incurred].

For a brief review, the HOA provided the disclosure packet in February 2006. After the homeowner’s pending sale fell through, she sued the HOA in August 2007. As we near August 2010, the underlying case may be close to resolution, but litigation with the insurance company may be far from resolving. Based upon the amount of litigation, we can assume that the HOA’s attorneys’ fees have reached six figures. Obviously, payment for these attorneys’ fees is then passed onto the homeowners (unless the case shifts payment of the attorneys’ fees to the losing party, but even then, courts rarely award the full 100% of the incurred fees).

Many lessons can be drawn from this experience. Most importantly, HOAs need to review their insurance policies to make sure they are covered fully for worst case scenarios. Our experience has shown that “anybody can sue anybody for anything at any time.” Although the plaintiff may not win (and did not win in this case), the ensuing litigation will take abundant resources. We can help you review your documents and insurance policies with the necessary professionals to protect your HOA, and homeowner interests.

Tarley Robinson, PLC, Attorneys and Counsellors at Law

Williamsburg, Virginia

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Arbitration in debt collection: FTC says it’s a broken system

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Common Interest Community, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley | No Comments

As a follow-up to our post on the costs and benefits of the arbitration process, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently issued a report indicating that the litigation and arbitration practices for resolving consumer debt need major reform.

Debt collection cases are on the rise.  We have seen a tremendous increase in the number of cases we are filing on delinquent homeowner association dues. In James City County/Williamsburg, the local courts have seen a 27% increase in civil filings from 2006 to 2008.  Other courts in Virginia and other states are experiencing similar increases in civil filings.

The FTC has made specific recommendations that the Federal government and the states consider new laws to protect consumers including a recommendation that a temporary ban be placed on the use of binding arbitration until such time that the arbitration forums have initiated changes to address deficiencies in arbitration. The FTC has suggested that state legislatures adopt measures to make it more likely that consumers will defend themselves in litigation, decreasing the prevalence of default judgments; require debt collectors to include more information about the alleged debt in their complaints; take steps to make it less likely that collectors will sue on debt on which the statute of limitations has run; and change laws to prevent the freezing of a specified amount in a bank account including funds exempt from garnishment.

We do not believe that these changes, if they occur, will effect our current practice areas and clients. However, we have also seen instances in which perceived procedural unfairness can lead to overreaching legislation. For example, it is fair to say that when the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was passed, legislators did not intend for it to reach into the wide-ranging areas it now does, including the collection of homeowner dues. See, e.g., Barry v. Board of Managers of Elmwood Park Condominium II, NT Slip Op 27506, http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ny-civil-court/1211140.html (December 12, 2007, NY Civil Court City of New York, Richmond County) (Judge Philip S. Straniere writing that “Somehow I think that Adams, Jefferson and Madison must be turning over in their graves at the thought that the federal government is regulating such a local activity as the collection of condominium association dues between the homeowner and the association”).

Arbitration tends to release pressure on state courts by handling cases that otherwise would be brought in court. However, if the process continues to be perceived as unfair, restrictions on the use of arbitration could be forthcoming.

Tarley Robinson, PLC, Attorneys and Counsellors at Law

Williamsburg, Virginia

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“Thank you” to Construction Law Musings – HOAs and the Association Lien

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Common Interest Community, HOA, HOA litigation, John Tarley, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | 1 Comment

For the second time, my friend and colleague, Richmond Construction Law attorney Chris Hill, permitted me the opportunity to blog at his award-winning blog Construction Law Musings on the topic of liens for assessments filed by community associations. You can get a lot of great information on construction law, including the intricacies of mechanic’s liens, from Chris and his blog. You can also follow him on Twitter, @ConstructionLaw.

 

Here’s a brief excerpt of the post:

In this blog, I will discuss another lien that can be filed on real property in Virginia, a lien that I will refer to in this blog as the “Association Lien.” Virginia has two separate code sections that permit community associations to file liens for unpaid assessments. For condominium associations, Va. Code § 55-79.84 sets forth the procedures for filing a lien. For developments governed by the Property Owners Association Act (“POAA”), Va. Code § 55-516 provides the statutory requirements.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to Chris’ blog, which, for me, is the “gold standard” for a proper lawyer’s blog. For the full post on filing a community association lien, please check out Chris’ Guest Post Fridays.

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How long should your HOA retain its records?

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Common Interest Community, HOA, HOA litigation, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

You are elected Secretary of your homeowners’ association. Congratulations! Someone hands you the minute book, owner roster, and the governing documents. You think, hey this is not overwhelming at all. Then the retiring Secretary mentions in passing that “If you’re home tomorrow I’ll deliver the boxes.” You ask “What boxes?” “Oh, all of the HOA’s records are boxed up and have been in my garage – I’ll bring them by,” replies the retiring Secretary.

What do you do with the boxes? What records and documents do HOAs need to keep? How long do you need to keep them? How should they be stored? This blog post provides some basic guidance on best practice tips for community association record retention.

HOA Filing Information

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Part 2 on Virginia’s Unauthorized Practice of Law Rules and HOAs – What is considered the unauthorized practice of law?

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Business Law, Common Interest Community, HOA, HOA litigation, John Tarley, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

We blogged previously about finding guidance in Virginia’s rules on the unauthorized practice of law as they pertain to community associations. In this post, we will review Virginia opinions that address whether certain work performed by managers is the unauthorized practice of law (“UPL”).

Gavel

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HOAs and a Reserve Study…it’s the law! (Part 1 of a 3 part series on Reserves)

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Common Interest Community, HOA, Susan B. Tarley | No Comments

Yes, Virginia, property owners’ associations and condominium associations are required to have a reserve study.  At least once every five years an association must obtain a study to determine the necessity and amount of reserves (i.e. financial savings) required to repair, replace and restore capital components.  Capital components are those items, regardless of whether they are part of the common area or common elements, for which a) the association has an obligation to repair, replace or restore, and for which b) the board or executive organ determines that funding is necessary.

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Enforcing HOA covenants important for common interest communities

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In General Interest, HOA, John Tarley, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley | 2 Comments

 

We have written previously on the litigation of homeowner association cases. Generally, homeowner associations can file a lawsuit in the General District courts to enforce collection of assessments. However, If an HOA needs to enforce a covenant, seeking an injunction to require a homeowner to comply with the restrictive covenant, as of 2011, the HOA must file a lawsuit in the Circuit Court can now file a lawsuit in the General District Court, as well. Virginia Code sections 55-79.80:2, and 55-513 give jurisdiction for those matters to the General District Court. Those lawsuits can be expensive and time-consuming.

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HOA Case Study: A Board’s statements or conduct may establish the enforceability of its governing documents

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Common Interest Community, General Interest, HOA, HOA litigation, John Tarley, Real Estate Litigation, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

An article in the Washington Post discussed a pending case in the Virginia Supreme Court regarding a dispute between property owners and a community association regarding the owners’ operation of a vineyard and retail store on their property. In an unpublished Order, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a Fauquier County jury verdict for the property owners that had been set aside by the trial court.

Although unpublished orders do not have “precedential value or . . . significance for the law or legal system,” this case does provide us with a look at how difficult it can be for community associations to interpret their governing documents and also how a board’s previous actions may have an effect upon future enforcement of the community’s declarations and covenants. This blog post will review the facts of that case and its applicability to your HOA.

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4 Tips to help your HOA protect its Attorney-Client Privilege

October 30, 2014 on 1:03 pm | In Common Interest Community, General Interest, HOA, HOA litigation, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

The Attorney-Client Privilege protects confidential communications between an attorney and his or her client.  This privilege includes communications made to the attorney and communications from the attorney. The Attorney-Client Privilege is designed to encourage clients to communicate with their attorney freely, without fearing disclosure of those communications made in the course of representation. The Attorney-Client Privilege is important because it permits clients to give their attorney complete and uncensored information, enabling their attorney to provide informed and thorough legal advice.

For community associations, the Attorney-Client Privilege belongs to the association and can only be expressly waived by the a decision of the association board or executive organ. However, the privilege can be impliedly waived based on the client’s conduct.  A determination on whether the privilege has been waived will depend on the specific facts of each case. The association will have to establish that the attorney-client relationship existed, that the communication is privileged, and that the privilege was not waived.

Here are four basic tips for the board of your Common Interest Community to follow so that it protects the association’s Attorney-Client Privilege:

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Smokin’ in the Condo

October 30, 2014 on 1:02 pm | In Common Interest Community, General Interest, HOA, HOA litigation, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley | No Comments

Imagine if someone told Don Draper and Roger Sterling of Mad Men that they could no longer smoke in their apartments. They would look at you curiously, smirk and light up a cigarette. But Mad Men, the television show about a Madison Avenue advertising agency is set in 1965 and as the ad for Virginia Slims said, “[we’ve] come a long way, baby.” Almost half of all adults smoked in 1965 but that percentage has dropped to 18% by 2012.

The negative health effects have been documented and the reported adverse health effects caused by second-hand smoke has resulted in smoking bans in restaurants. One of the next areas in which smoking bans have been put in place is in condominium communities. Some of the smoking bans address common elements only but others have imposed a ban on smoking in the condominium unit.

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