Enforcing HOA covenants important for common interest communities

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 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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Can HOAs Prohibit Owners From Flying the American Flag?

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 pm | In General Interest, HOA, HOA litigation, Jason Howell, John Tarley, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

Flying the flag is an important way that Americans celebrate their liberty and the sacrifices of past and present heroes who defend it. There were news stories about a dispute between an Ohio homeowners’ association and a Vietnam veteran over a flagpole that brought an important issue to the forefront.

In Ohio, a homeowner erected a large flagpole on his property to fly the flag. The homeowners’ association told him that the flagpole (not the flag) violated the declaration of covenants for the neighborhood, and asked him to take the flagpole down. It offered to place flagpoles in common areas in the neighborhood, and suggested that the covenants would allow him to fly a flag on a pole attached to his house. He refused. After a firestorm of publicity, the HOA averted litigation by permitting the homeowner to keep his flagpole. The underlying question remains: can a homeowners’ association really prohibit an owner from flying the American Flag?

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Homeowner cannot be forced to join a voluntary HOA

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 pm | In Common Interest Community, HOA, John Tarley, Real Estate Strategies, State & Federal Litigation | No Comments

In a case from the Chesterfield Circuit Court, the circuit court judge determined that a homeowner could not be forced to pay association dues to a voluntary association. This result is not surprising.


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The Same Employer But a Different Result in this Virginia Supreme Court Case Regarding the Enforceability of Noncompete Agreements

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 pm | In Business Planning, Employment law, John Tarley, Merger & Acquisition, State & Federal Litigation | No Comments

Over the course of the past 20 years, the Virginia Supreme Court has tweaked the law governing non-compete agreements. In its latest case, the Court came full circle by invalidating a noncompete agreement that used the same language the Court had upheld 20 years earlier in a case involving the same company.

As we have written before, trial courts will enforce noncompete agreements when the agreements (1) are narrowly drawn to protect the employer’s legitimate business interest, (2) are not unduly burdensome on the employee’s ability to earn a living, and (3) are not against public policy. Importantly, the employer has the burden to prove each of these elements. When evaluating whether the employer has met that burden, trials courts should consider the “function, geographic scope, and duration” elements of the noncompete restrictions.  These elements are “considered together” rather than “as three separate and distinct issues.”

Further, if the noncompete agreement is too broad or otherwise unenforceable, a Virginia court will not rewrite, or “blue pencil” the agreement to make it enforceable. Therefore, it is important that you work with your business attorney to draft an enforceable non-compete agreement.

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Attorneys’ Fees and Litigation – When fees get awarded to the “Prevailing Party”

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 pm | In Common Interest Community, Construction litigation, HOA, HOA litigation, John Tarley, Mediation, Real Estate Litigation, State & Federal Litigation, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

In litigation matters involving common interest communities (otherwise known as homeowners associations (“HOAs”) or condominium owners associations (“condo associations”)), the issue of awarding attorneys’ fees for prevailing parties ultimately arises. Generally, the HOA’s Governing Documents or the condo association’s Condominium Instruments contain such a provision. Otherwise, attorneys’ fees may be recoverable by statute for HOAs and condo associations.

These attorney fee-shifting provisions, either by contract or statute, are contrary to the typical “American Rule” cases in which each side pays their own attorneys’ fees. Because litigation has become so expensive to pursue, whether to award attorneys’ fees, and the amount of any award, has become separate litigation on its own at the conclusion of cases.

In the recent case of Dewberry & Davis, Inc. v. C3NS, Inc., the Virginia Supreme Court was faced with the issue of “whether the circuit court erred in applying an attorneys’ fees provision of a contract.” We had previously blogged about this case, because in the underlying contract between the parties, Dewberry & Davis, an engineering company, had limited its liability for damages. The trial court had determined the limitation of liability clause was void, pointing to a recent change to Virginia Code § 54.1-411that permitted an engineering company to include a limitation of liability clause. Because the contract predated the code change, the court determined that those changes “demonstrate that the General Assembly fully intended to alter the statute’s intent.”

The case continued to trial, and eventually, upon appeal, to the Virginia Supreme Court. This blog post explains that Supreme Court decision relating to the award of attorneys’ fees.

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In litigation, you can’t always get what you want (especially if you don’t ask)

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 pm | In Construction litigation, Contributors, General Interest, HOA litigation, John Tarley, Real Estate Litigation, State & Federal Litigation | No Comments

It’s a fundamental rule in Virginia that the Plaintiff (the person filing a lawsuit) can only recover the relief requested in the Complaint. In a recent unpublished decision, the Virginia Supreme Court reaffirmed the requirement that a party can only get relief if they ask for it.

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Can an engineering firm limit its liability by contract?

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 pm | In Business Planning, John Tarley, State & Federal Litigation | No Comments

 

Maybe not, in certain circumstances. A Fairfax County judge has determined that an engineering firm cannot limit its liability by contract in a case involving a 2008 fee contract. The typical fee agreement for an engineering firm includes some form of “limitation of liability” in which the firm seeks to limit its liability “to the amount of fees paid” to the firm, whether the claim is for breach of contract or warranty, or for negligence. In the case of Dewberry & Davis, Inc. v. C3NS, Inc., the engineering services firm, Dewberry, filed a fee claim against C3NS. C3NS filed a counterclaim for breach of contract. Dewberry had a limitation of liability clause in its fee agreement. It sought summary judgment to prevent C3NS from claiming that the limitation of liability paragraph was void. The Court sided with C3NS.

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Residential construction and mechanic’s liens; how you can protect your mechanic’s lien rights

October 30, 2014 on 1:20 pm | In Construction litigation, John Tarley, Real Estate Litigation, State & Federal Litigation | No Comments
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With the downturn of the housing industry, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of construction disputes, especially in residential construction. Owners are battling with the contractors, and subcontractors are trying to get paid by somebody. These cases lead inevitably to litigation.

The property owners and the building contractor should have a written contract. However, the subcontractors sometimes find themselves in a difficult situation, unpaid by an insolvent building contractor. It is usually then that we will receive a call from a subcontractor asking about their mechanic’s lien rights. Unfortunately, it may be too late for that subcontractor to preserve their mechanic’s lien rights because they failed to provide proper notice at the outset of the work performance. This blog post provides a brief overview of the notice requirements for subcontractors to preserve mechanic’s lien rights. Continue reading “Residential construction and mechanic’s liens; how you can protect your mechanic’s lien rights”

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Lawsuits against HOAs are expensive and time-consuming for all

October 30, 2014 on 1:19 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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Attorney-Client Privilege: What is it and how do you protect it?

October 30, 2014 on 1:19 pm | In Business Planning, Common Interest Community, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley | No Comments

The attorney-client privilege permits confidential communication between an attorney and her client.  The objective is to encourage open communication, which permits an attorney to provide thorough, competent and complete advice.  Generally speaking, only a client can waive the privilege, but as found by the Virginia Supreme Court in Walton v. Mid-Atlantic Spine Specialist, PC, et al., a client’s inadvertent disclosure of a privileged communication may operate as a waiver of the attorney-client privilege.

In this Williamsburg medical malpractice case, a defendant doctor wrote a letter to his attorney calling into question his medical diagnosis he gave to his patient. The doctor kept this letter in a separate notebook. During discovery the defendant medical practice used a third party service to copy document requests. The letter was provided inadvertently to the plaintiff.

Although the defendant claimed that he did not produce the letter or permit anyone else to produce the letter, the Court found that the defendant did not take adequate protection to protect the letter. The Court noted that the notebook in which the letter was found was not marked as confidential or privileged. Furthermore, the Court held that the client did not take prompt action following disclosure.

The Virginia Supreme Court considered five main factors in determining whether the inadvertent disclosure waived the client’s privilege.  The Court looked at:  (1) the reasonableness of the precautions to prevent inadvertent disclosures, (2) the time taken to rectify the error, (3) the scope of discovery, (4) the extent of the disclosure, and (5) whether the party asserting the claim of privilege or protection for the communication has used its unavailability for misleading or otherwise improper or overreaching purposes in the litigation making it unfair to allow the party to invoke confidentiality under the circumstances.

As a start, clients should maintain attorney-client privileged communications in a separate file or notebook and clearly mark the file or notebook and each communication as “CONFIDENTIAL-ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION.”  Then, if an inadvertent disclosure is made, the client should contact her attorney as soon as possible to determine a plan of action to restore the attorney-client privilege.

Tarley Robinson, PLC, Attorneys and Counsellors at Law

Williamsburg, Virginia

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