Arbitration instead of Court? Be careful what you ask for

October 30, 2014 on 1:12 pm | In Business Planning, Common Interest Community, John Tarley, Real Estate Strategies, State & Federal Litigation | No Comments

Over the past 15 years or so, “arbitration” provisions have appeared with increasing frequency in a wide variety of contracts. For example, declarations of covenants and restrictions recorded for homeowners associations, construction contracts, employment contracts, and commercial leases all may contain arbitration clauses. Arbitration may be a good idea, but you should know what “arbitration” means before you agree to be bound by such a provision.

Many people confuse the terms “mediation” and “arbitration.” Mediation refers to a process whereby a third-party helps facilitate a negotiated settlement between two or more parties. A mediator does not make decisions, does not take evidence, and does not conduct hearings. Parties simply negotiate and the mediator helps foster those negotiations.

Conversely, arbitrations are conducted like regular trials, with a judge-like arbitrator (or arbitrators) making a final decision based upon the evidence presented, and hopefully the law of your jurisdiction. Appeals of an arbitrator’s decision are virtually nonexistent.

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Lawsuits against HOAs are expensive and time-consuming for all

October 30, 2014 on 1:12 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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HOA Boards of Directors: Two Essential Tips to Effective Management

October 30, 2014 on 1:12 pm | In Common Interest Community, General Interest, HOA, Real Estate Strategies, Susan B. Tarley | 2 Comments

Many of us can attest to the stress and lost time that results when working on, for, or with a dysfunctional Board of Directors. Boards that do not operate as a team fail to accomplish the tasks that need to be accomplished, and greatly increase the potential liabilities of a community association.

The healthy leadership of a board is essential to the strength of a community. Community associations can build a strong team if board members and owners better understand the roles and responsibilities of their association, the board and each owner. To start building a team, the board needs to lead. The goal of team building is to establish a strong association and build a sense of “community.”

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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 1:11 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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Can an HOA prohibit the posting of political signs?

October 30, 2014 on 1:11 pm | In Common Interest Community, HOA, HOA litigation, Land Use Planning, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

Well, it’s that time of year when signs start popping up in neighborhoods as election day draws near. In neighborhoods governed by a homeowner or condominium association, boards of directors are sometimes asked to enforce sign restrictions when one neighbor complains about another’s political sign (and probably, the neighbor’s choice of candidate).

A person’s first response typically is “I have the right to free speech and you can’t stop me from posting my political sign on my property!” However, is that the end of the discussion? This blog post reviews a community association’s rights and responsibilities regarding political signs.

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Benefits of HOAs Part 2: How is Covenant Enforcement Good for Owners?

October 30, 2014 on 1:11 pm | In Common Interest Community, HOA, HOA litigation, Jason Howell, John Tarley, Real Estate Litigation, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

The enforcement of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (“CC&R’s”) is among the most criticized of the duties performed by the Board of Directors of community associations, but is also the most important responsibility. CC&R’s govern many activities in a community including house designs, parking regulations, maintenance and repair of the common areas, and collection of assessments. Sensational “Gotcha” type news stories highlight enforcement practices of some associations, which contribute to a false perception that associations in general lack common sense. However, studies repeatedly show that the overwhelming majority of people  living in neighborhoods governed by HOAs believe that the rules in their communities benefit them.

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HOAs and Mediation: Not always a viable alternative to Litigation

October 30, 2014 on 1:11 pm | In Common Interest Community, HOA, HOA litigation, John Tarley, Real Estate Litigation, State & Federal Litigation, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | 3 Comments

We have written extensively on the virtues of alternative dispute resolution, specifically mediation, to resolve disputes. Litigation is a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, and in the end, both sides are generally unhappy with the result because of the costs and time incurred.

But although we encourage mediation generally, mediation in HOA litigation is a much more complex and difficult undertaking. In this blog post, we will discuss difficulties with mediating HOA disputes.

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Part 1 on Virginia’s Unauthorized Practice of Law Rules and HOAs – Where do we find guidance?

October 30, 2014 on 1:11 pm | In Business Law, Common Interest Community, HOA, HOA litigation, John Tarley, Susan B. Tarley, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

Mention the unauthorized practice of law when discussing homeowner and condominium associations and typically the room gets very quiet. Associations, board members and managers strive to keep their budgets low, but compliance with new laws and regulations, keeping up with the collection of assessments, and the upswing in litigation involving homeowner and condominium associations makes it very difficult. When matters become a “legal issue,” board members and managers are best advised to seek legal counsel to ensure that the association is being adequately protected and represented, and that the board members and the managers are not engaging in activities that the Commonwealth might find to be the unauthorized practice of law.

We previously blogged on questions of the unauthorized practice of law when an unlicensed attorney serves on the association’s Board of Directors. In our next two blogs, we will review other issues involving questions of the unauthorized practice of law. In this blog, we discuss where we look for guidance, and in a subsequent blog, we will review Virginia decisions and opinions on the unauthorized practice of law.

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Watch out for email scams!

October 30, 2014 on 1:11 pm | In General Interest, John Tarley, State & Federal Litigation | No Comments

Email and telephone frauds are proliferating through the attorney community, and have been redirected at other professionals. On the message board for the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, one of my attorney colleagues provided a story from one of his clients: “a consulting engineer who frequently testifies in litigation, was retained by a bonding company in Colorado regarding a dispute with a construction company in Pittsburgh. Luckily he smelled a rat when they announced that a disbursement would be run through his company account.”

 

Email

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What happens if a tree falls from my property onto a public highway causing damage?

October 30, 2014 on 1:11 pm | In Common Interest Community, General Interest, Real Estate Litigation, State & Federal Litigation, Unit Owners Association | No Comments

“Tree law” fascinates us. I guess part of the reason is because many of us have at least one tree on our property, and during severe storms, we fear what would happen if one of those trees fell on our house, our neighbor’s house, or the street. Once the fear subsides, the next question we ask ourselves is “Who would pay if the tree fell on our neighbor’s property or vice versa and caused damage?” Or our neighbor’s tree may overhang our property or its roots may cause damage to our property, “What can we do then?” These issues are important considerations for property owners and community associations when reviewing their insurance policies.

The Virginia Supreme Court added to the small body of Virginia “tree law” cases. In this case, Cline v. Dunlora South, LLC, a man driving on a public road was struck and injured by a tree  that fell from private property. The man sued the property owner, claiming that the property owner’s “conduct constituted a nuisance because [its] lack of care, inspection, servicing, and/or maintenance of the subject property and tree was a condition that imperiled the safety of the public highway immediately adjacent to the property and tree, creating a danger and hazard to motorists and/or pedestrians.” The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and on appeal the Virginia Supreme Court agreed that the property owner did not have “a duty to protect travelers on an adjoining public roadway from natural conditions on his or her land.” This blog post reviews that decision and what it means for us.

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