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Articles Posted in Litigation

*Asked & Answered

court-diagram-photoAsked – Several members of our association have requested that we convert a portion of our common area into a pickleball court. Does your office recommend moving forward with the installation?

Answered – Generally, no. For those who may not know, pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. Two or four players use solid paddles to hit a wiffleball over a net. It is an activity that can be played amongst all age groups and provides various health benefits and has increased in popularity in recent years. However, with its benefits comes numerous issues.

Considering that pickleball is played with a solid paddle and a wiffleball, it is an extraordinarily loud sport. Moreover, as it grows in popularity, it generally brings large gatherings of people together whose yells and cheers can be heard over great distances. This noise may result in a substantial nuisance to those within earshot and may subject the association to various lawsuits unless the pickleball courts are constructed far out of the earshot of the residences.

Unfortunately, our office has seen many associations attempting to convert croquet lawns, bocce ball courts, etc. into pickleball courts that are centrally located to other amenities provided by the association. These are typically areas which many members regularly visit as a place of quiet enjoyment and relaxation. Unfortunately, this quiet enjoyment could be severely disrupted once the pickleball courts are installed.

Even more concerning is when associations attempt to install the pickleball courts in areas immediately adjacent to residences. The owners of the surrounding homes will be routinely battered with the noise emanating from the pickleball courts. This will no doubt result in substantial frustration to those residents, may have a negative impact on their property value, and will, almost certainly, result in a nuisance lawsuit for the association.

The nuisance created by this loud sport has resulted in various lawsuits and settlement agreements costing associations tens of thousands of dollars and has severely harmed many associations’ financial wellbeing. This, in turn, is then passed back to the membership by way of increased assessments.

As such, if the association decides to move forward with the installation of the pickleball courts , it is not a matter of if, but a question of when a lawsuit may be filed. Thus, unless the association has an area far removed from the residences and other common area amenities, it is likely not worth exposing the association to the increased risk of liability.

California HOA lawyers If your association has any questions as to whether to install a pickleball court in your association, contact your attorney to provide an in-depth analysis to ensure the association is not needlessly exposing itself to liability.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Corey L. Todd, Esq.

090518115715*New Case Law

In the case of Aldea Dos Vientos v. CalAtlantic Group, Inc., the Second District Court of Appeals overruled the Fourth District’s previous holding in Branches Neighborhood Corp. v. CalAtlantic Group, Inc.  The Branches case found that homeowners associations forfeit their rights to pursue construction defect claims unless their members first vote to approve such legal action in accordance with their CC&Rs.  The Branches decision was overturned upon the finding that developers cannot use the CC&Rs to veto claims made against them.  The Court of Appeals held that such use of the CC&Rs not only violated public policy, but also Senate Bill No. 326, as codified by California Civil Code, section 5986(b).

 

Factual Summary

A condominium project in Thousand Oaks, Aldea Dos Vientos (“Association”), brought suit against CalAtlantic Group, Inc., the successor to the developer of the Project (“Developer”). The trial court stayed the lawsuit on the parties’ agreement to participate in mediation and then arbitration.  When mediation was unsuccessful, the Association subsequently filed a demand for arbitration.  After the demand was filed, the Developer cited to the Association’s CC&Rs at Section 7.01B to raise a defense.  Section 7.01B required the Association to first obtain a membership vote in excess of fifty-one percent (51%) prior to commencing arbitration. The Association admitted it had not obtained the required vote.

In response, the arbitrator stayed the arbitration to allow the Association to petition the trial court to review this issue of arbitrability.  In the meantime, the Association obtained membership approval to continue with arbitration from over ninety-nine percent (99%) of its members.  The trial court denied the Association’s motion on the grounds that arbitrability was a matter for the arbitrator to decide.  The Developer then filed a motion to dismiss with the arbitrator for the Association’s failure to comply with the CC&Rs at Section 7.01B.  The arbitrator summarily dismissed the original demand for arbitration, and the trial court concluded that the arbitration constituted a final determination of the rights of the parties, so judgment was entered in favor of the Developer and against the Association.

 

Public Policy

In the Aldea Dos Vientos case, the Second District Court of Appeals vacated the lower court’s decision on the basis that the arbitrators exceeded their powers by issuing an award that contravenes an explicit legislative expression of public policy. More specifically, the Court of Appeals found that Section 7.01B of the CC&Rs violates public policy because it gives the Developer the unilateral power to bar an action against itself even though the Legislature clearly intended for housing to be free of substantial construction defects.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that Section 7.01B of the CC&Rs, and any similar provision, is not just unreasonable but unconscionable.  The Court stated, “[i]t gives the Developer veto power over the Association’s claims in spite of the members’ vote to proceed with the arbitration.”  In sum, such a provision amounts to a trap for the unwary set by the Developer to bar claims against it.  For these very reasons, the Second District Court of Appeals declined to follow its sister court’s ruling in Branches.

 

Senate Bill 326

The Court of Appeals also acknowledged that the Legislature has already found provisions, like Section 7.01B, to be unconscionable.  Senate Bill 326 was enacted on August 30, 2019 and took effect on January 1, 2020.  The bill added Civil Code, section 5986, subdivision (b) to the Davis-Stirling Act, which prohibits an association’s CC&Rs from limiting a Board’s authority to initiate legal proceedings against its Developer.   The Civil Code applies retroactively to any CC&Rs with such limiting language.

The Second District Court of Appeals reversed the judgment in Aldea Dos Vientos on the additional grounds that the arbitrator’s decision to dismiss the original demand for arbitration was not on the merits, nor was the trial court’s judgment final.  Furthermore, the arbitrator’s decision expressly stated that it did not directly impact the Association’s second demand for arbitration.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the arbitrator’s decision could not have resulted in a final judgment against the Association in the Aldea Dos Vientos case.

California HOA lawyers The Aldea Dos Vientos ruling is beneficial for homeowners associations across the state because it preserves their rights to bring construction defect lawsuits against developers regardless of language in the CC&Rs requiring prior membership approval.  In any event, homeowners associations should always seek legal advice from attorneys that specialize in HOA law before commencing construction defect lawsuits to ensure their compliance with both state law and their governing documents.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Sarah A. Kyriakedes, Esq.

plumbing-890x600*New Case Law

One of the primary purposes for which a homeowners’ association (“HOA”) is formed is to maintain and repair the HOA’s common areas, as well as any other areas designated within the HOA’s recorded Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (“CC&Rs”) (i.e., HOA Maintenance Areas). Faithfully executing the maintenance obligations under the CC&Rs is important to preserve property values and generally enhance the quality of life of all residents residing in the community. Failure to do so may expose the Association to liability.

For example, in the recent case of Sands v. Walnut Gardens Condominium Association, the California Appellate Court held the HOA could be responsible for damages sustained by a homeowner as a result of a plumbing leak originating from a pipe on the roof of the condominium building (i.e., HOA common area). ((2019) 35 Cal. App. 5th 174, 176.) In Sands, the HOA repaired the pipe and the roof, but did not compensate the homeowners for the damages they sustained to the interior of the unit and their personal property. The homeowners sued the HOA for breach of contract and negligence.

In addressing the former first (i.e., the breach of contract claim), the Court of Appeal noted that the HOA had a contractual obligation under the CC&Rs to maintain the common area in “a first-class condition.” (Id.) A jury could find that the HOA breached that contract by failing to perform preventative maintenance, and by failing to periodically inspect the pipes and roof. The Court dismissed the HOA’s argument “no evidence showed [that] the [HOA] was ‘on notice that it needed to make repairs or do something to the roof or the pipes.’” (Id.) Rather, it was sufficient that the HOA knew that no maintenance was being performed, which a jury could find as a breach of the CC&Rs’ requirement that the common area be maintained in a first-class condition.

However, as to the second cause of action for negligence, the Court sustained the trial court’s judgment of nonsuit (i.e., the homeowners failed to present sufficient evidence to conclude that the HOA was negligent). The Court noted that “the [HOA] had no independent duty as to the pipes and roof arising from tort law.” (Id. at p. 177.) In other words, absent a showing of a duty independent of the CC&Rs, an HOA cannot be held liable for the tort of negligence.

This case is important for several reasons. First, while the Rule of Judicial Deference generally requires courts to defer to maintenance decisions made by HOA boards even if a reasonable person would have acted differently in the same situation, the rule does not protect HOAs when they fail to perform any preventative maintenance and/or periodic inspections. Thus, a HOA should not wait until it receives maintenance requests and/or notice from homeowners concerning the need for common area repairs; rather, the Board should consult with experts and establish a preventative maintenance program addressing all common areas.

Second, there is no separate tort claim (e.g., negligence claim) for a HOA’s failure to maintain the common area. This is not to say, however, that a HOA will not be liable under a negligence theory for other reasons. For example, if a HOA voluntarily assumes a duty to protect residents from criminal activities and breaches that duty, the HOA may be held liable for negligence. (See Frances T. v. Village Green Owners Association (1986) 42 Cal. 3d 490.) The language contained in Frances T. also seems to suggest that a HOA may be found negligent for failing to maintain the common area which results in personal injuries. (Id. at p. 499.)

California HOA lawyers The case of Sands v. Walnut Gardens highlights the importance of properly executing maintenance obligations under the CC&Rs. While the Board is granted judicial deference in determining how the common areas are to be maintained, a HOA may be held liable for its failure to investigate maintenance problems and to take reasonable action. (See Affan v. Portofino Cove Homeowners Association (2010) 189 Cal. App. 4th 930 [the deference afforded to HOA Boards may not extend to situations where the Board fails to act or to investigate the scope of required maintenance or repairs].) HOA Boards should therefore consult with experts to establish and execute an appropriate common area maintenance plan.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Matthew T. Plaxton, Esq.

Fotolia_65601566_S*Unpublished Opinion

We recently blogged about the importance of the the plain language of an association’s Declaration when following pre-litigation requirements to a construction defect claim.  On March 18, 2019, the California Court of Appeal ruled that trial courts should not deny a homeowner of his right to submit a case to arbitration pursuant to the CC&Rs when there is a disagreement about whether the homeowner complied with the pre-litigation requirements.  Instead, the dispute should be submitted to an arbitrator to make the final decision on whether the conditions precedent to arbitration have been satisfied. (See Baldwin v. Woodside 05s, LP, Case No. E06827 (Cal. Ct. App. March 18, 2019).)

In the case of Baldwin v. Woodside 05s, LP, several homeowners filed a lawsuit against a developer on construction defect claims.  According to the development’s CC&Rs, homeowners were required to satisfy certain pre-litigation conditions before they were permitted to initiate lawsuits against the developers.  For example, before filing a lawsuit, the CC&Rs stated that:

  • homeowners were required to give notice of the dispute to the developer;
  • homeowners were required to give the developer an opportunity to inspect and take corrective action;
  • the parties were permitted to agree to voluntarily mediation;
  • the parties were permitted to submit the dispute to binding arbitration; and
  • if mediation and arbitration failed, the parties were required to submit the dispute to a judicial reference.

In the Baldwin case, the homeowners did not satisfy the pre-litigation requirements.  The homeowners filed a lawsuit against the developer, without providing notice or an opportunity to inspect, and then tried to compel arbitration and judicial reference through motions to the court.  In response, the trial court denied both of the homeowners’ motions, and the homeowners appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that the homeowners were not permitted to appeal the trial court’s ruling in relation to their request for a judicial reference because the Code of Civil Procedure, section 906 only permits appellate courts to review verdicts that involve the merits of the case or that substantially affects the rights of a party.  The Court of Appeal found that the decision to grant or deny a judicial reference does not involve the merits of a case.  Therefore, the homeowners had no right to appeal and lost their opportunity to submit the matter to a judicial reference.

However, the Court of Appeal found that the trial court erred when it denied the homeowners’ motion to compel arbitration.  The Court of Appeal held that while trial courts should determine whether parties agreed to be bound by an arbitration clause in the first place (i.e., the question of arbitrability), only arbitrators should rule on procedural questions, like whether a condition precedent to arbitration has been fulfilled.

Since there was no question that the Baldwin parties agreed to be bound by the arbitration provision in the CC&Rs, and the underlying construction defect claims fell within the scope of the arbitration provision, the trial court was required to grant the homeowners’ motion to compel arbitration.  Although the trial court should have left the question of whether the homeowners satisfied the conditions precedent to arbitration to the arbitrators.

California HOA lawyers This case serves as a reminder that the California Supreme Court has a long-standing policy of upholding arbitration agreements. If the CC&Rs contain an arbitration provision, a homeowners association should have its legal counsel carefully review the related contractual requirements before commencing litigation in order to save significant legal fees and costs.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Sarah A. Kyriakedes, Esq.

anti-SLAPP*Unpublished Opinion

The recent unpublished opinion of Chemers v. Quail Hill Community Association et al. (2018) shines some light on the oft-misunderstood California Anti-SLAPP statute and its effectiveness as a defense for actions by a homeowners association’s board of directors.  The Fourth District California Court of Appeal held that certain actions by the board in a dispute with a director were not in furtherance of the right of free speech or petition as to be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute.

Plaintiff Evan Chemers (“Chemers”) was a member of the board of directors for defendant Quail Hill Community Association (“Quail Hill”), a planned unit development located in Irvine, California.  A series of disagreements and escalating tension between Chemers and other members of the board resulted in the board taking affirmative steps to remove Chemers from the board permanently.  In June 2016, the board proposed a resolution to create an executive committee consisting of all board members except for Chemers, and in July 2016, the board proposed a resolution to declare Chemers’ board seat vacant on the ground that he did not meet the member-residency requirement.  Chemers was not afforded an opportunity to present any evidence of residency, address the board, or have his legal counsel present when he was formally removed.

In October 2016, Chemers filed a lawsuit against the association and other directors, alleging eight causes of action including breach of governing documents, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, declaratory relief, and various violations of the Civil Code and Corporations Code.  In response, the defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion seeking an order striking the complaint and the eight causes of action within it.  The trial court granted the moving defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion as to six of the eight causes of action.

Chemers subsequently appealed the trial court’s decision, and the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court erred by granting the anti-SLAPP motion as to the claims alleged against Quail Hill for breach of contract, violation of Civil Code section 5850 et seq., and for two counts of declaratory relief.  The Court of Appeal reasoned that none of those four causes of action arose out of protected activity – whether speech or petitioning activity – within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute.

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arbitration-judgeIt is well settled that an association’s CC&Rs (“Declaration”) establishes and controls, among other things, a board’s authority to govern an association provided that the CC&Rs do not conflict with California law and regulations (i.e., Davis-Stirling Act). In such cases, the plain language of the CC&Rs control. (Franklin v. Marie Antoinette Condominium Owners Assn. (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 824, 829.)  This was the case in Branches Neighborhood Corporation v. CalAtlantic Group, Inc. (2018), where Branches Neighborhood Corporation’s (“Association”) Declaration required the same to obtain a membership vote of fifty-one percent (51%) or more prior to the initiation of its construction defect claim (“Claim”) against CalAtlantic Group., Inc. (“Developer”).

In Branches, the Association properly followed all procedural requirements under California law in the initiation of the Claim, however, failed to obtain the prerequisite vote in accordance with its Declaration. Approximately two years after the initiation of the Claim, the Association obtained a membership vote in excess of fifty-one percent (51%), approving and ratifying the Claim. Taking into consideration these undisputed facts, the arbitrator assigned to the Claim granted Developer’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the “after the fact expression of consent cannot be transmuted into the prior consent required by the CC&Rs…when such a result would adversely impact the rights of a party to the agreement by which the CC&Rs were created…[t]he Developer is such a party.”

In its opposition to Developer’s motion to confirm the award, the Association based its argument on the theory that the arbitrator exceeded its powers under Code of Civil Procedure (“CCP”) § 1286.2(a)(4), which requires a court to vacate an arbitrator’s award if it determines that the arbitrator has exceeded its powers. Specifically, the Association argued that the arbitrator exceeded its powers by (1) depriving the Association of its unwaivable statutory right to affirmatively ratify the Claim, and (2) overriding public policy in favor of ratification. Both trial and appellate courts (collectively, “Court”) confirmed the arbitrator’s award.

The Court predicated its decision on the established foundation of the “Rule of Finality,” which in short, provides extreme deference to an arbitrator’s decision, subject to limited exceptions such as CCP § 1286.2(a)(4).

In support of its first argument, the Association provided the Court with several sections of the Davis-Stirling Act (“Act”) that provided the Association with the ability to retroactively ratify its actions, claiming that it is its “statutory right.” As such, the Association asserted that the provision in the Declaration that requires membership approval prior to the initiation of the Claim (“Provision”) is unenforceable as it waives said right. The Court quickly disposed of this argument because all the statutes mentioned by the Association provided the right to ratify only if a provision of the Act required an action to be approved by a majority vote. (See Civil Code §§ 4065, 4070.)  Here, the Court found no provision of the Act that required the Association to obtain a majority vote prior to the initiation of the Claim, holding that “absent a specific requirement in the Act to hold an election, the association’s governing documents control.” Branches, at 6.

The Association then went on to argue that public policy supports its position due to the Legislature’s “clear pronouncement of public policy favoring ratification.” Branches, at 8.  The Court disagreed with this proposition, stating that the Act was created to regulate the governance of homeowners associations, placing a system of checks and balances (“System”) against the Association and its board of directors (“Board”). The Court noted Civil Code § 6150 (requiring an association to provide notice to its members 30 days prior to the filing of a claim, unless such requirement would cause the statute of limitations to run) as an example of the System the Act is intended to establish. The Court found the Provision to go a “step further” by requiring the Association to obtain membership approval prior to the initiation of the Claim, as opposed to the mere requirement of providing notice of same. Id.

Retroactively approving the Claim went against public policy as it stripped Association members of their ability to “check” the authority of the Board (i.e., provide authorization to file the Claim); even if the members had the ability to disapprove the Claim, the Association would suffer damages in the form of legal costs and expenses already expended in the Claim, going further against the System, Act, and Declaration. Accordingly, the Court found no violation of public policy and thus, no violation committed by the arbitrator.

Branches emphasizes the importance of the plain language of an association’s Declaration. So long as the Declaration does not conflict with existing law (i.e., Act) and/or goes against public policy, the plain language of the Declaration controls, to which a homeowners association must strictly abide by.

hoa laws It is of crucial importance for a homeowners association to thoroughly interpret, analyze and understand its authority under its governing documents, in particular, its CC&Rs, prior to the taking of any action in order to avoid unnecessary consequences.  For the same reason, it is of equal importance for homeowners associations to obtain general legal counsel that specializes solely in HOA law and related matters to provide unfettered and sound legal advice from an objective perspective.  Law firms that specialize in multiple areas of law (e.g., HOA and construction defect) may overlook certain provisions of an association’s governing documents and inadvertently guide associations in a direction that may prove to be detrimental, such as the outcome in Branches.  For more information and guidance related to the interpretation and/or amending of CC&Rs and other governing documents, please contact us.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Andrew M. Jun, Esq.

Court-TrialPreliminary injunctions are temporary court orders requested by one party that prevents another party from pursuing a particular course of conduct until the conclusion of a trial on the merits.  A preliminary injunction is proper where the moving party proves the following two factors: (1) the likelihood that the moving party will ultimately prevail on the merits at the time of trial; and (2) that relative interim harm to the parties from issuance of the injunction weighs in that party’s favor.

Occasionally, HOAs seek preliminary injunctions as a means to enforce the HOA’s governing documents.  Among other reasons, the purpose behind that request for judicial relief is to restrain homeowner actions or omissions when such conduct potentially poses a threat of harm or risk to Association Property or the Association’s Members.  Examples include a homeowner’s unauthorized alteration of structural common area components (e.g. removal of a bearing wall within a condominium unit; unapproved building activities on common area property).

Under the Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act (“Act”), at the conclusion of a trial on the merits, the prevailing party shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and costs in an action to enforce the HOA’s governing documents (Civil Code Section 5975).  Historically, there has been some question as to whether a moving party may recover statutory attorney’s fees and costs if the court grants a preliminary injunction in a HOA enforcement action.  In January 2018, the California Court of Appeal addressed that issue in the case of Artus v. Gramercy Towers Condominium Association (19 Cal.App.5th 923).

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*New Case Lawhoa-records-inspection

As part of the ongoing management of a homeowners association (“HOA”), the HOA is obligated to prepare and maintain certain “association records,” most of which must be made available for inspection by the HOA’s members. However, the right to inspect and copy certain association records is not absolute, as some records may be withheld from a member for confidentiality concerns, as well as in situations where the member requesting the records is doing so for an “improper purpose”:

“association records, and any information from them, may not be sold, used for a commercial purpose, or used for any other purpose not reasonably related to a member’s interest as a member.” (Civ. Code § 5230; see also Corp. Code §§ 8330, 8333.)

This “proper purpose” requirement was recently the focus of a challenge brought by a member of a HOA who sought to inspect and copy the HOA’s membership list. In Tract No. 7260 Association, Inc. v. Parker (2017) 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 265 (“Parker“), the Court of Appeal concluded that the HOA was justified in withholding the membership list despite the member’s offering of a facially valid reason for his request to inspect the membership list. The member was involved in a corporation that the HOA was suing, called “Fix the City.” The member claimed that he sought the membership list “for possible communication with the [HOA’s] members to ascertain whether there had been corporate misdeeds.”

The HOA denied the request, arguing that the member was seeking inspection of the membership list in order to give Fix the City an unfair advantage in the lawsuit between it and the HOA. The trial court considered the facts at issue, and concluded that the member’s request was indeed improper, stating that “a reasonable conclusion is that [the member] is using his membership status to aid Fix the City in defending the [HOA/Fix the City] lawsuit.”

This aspect of the trial court’s ruling was affirmed on appeal. The Court in Parker noted that, while the HOA has the burden of demonstrating that the member will use the record for an improper purpose, and that mere speculation of an improper purpose is insufficient to justify withholding records, the HOA provided sufficient evidence that the requesting member did indeed seek the information for an improper purpose—namely, to aid Fix the City’s defense in the lawsuit brought against it by the HOA.

California HOA lawyers The Parker case underscores the importance of evaluating a member’s request for association records to determine whether the requested record(s) will be used for an improper purpose (i.e., to advance the member’s interests at the expense of the HOA’s). If the purpose is improper, and that conclusion is supported by more than simple conjecture, the HOA may lawfully deny the request. HOA Boards and managing agents that are concerned about the underlying motivations of a member’s request for association records should consult with the HOA’s legal counsel as to what records may (and indeed should) be withheld in order to protect the HOA.

-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Matthew Plaxton, Esq.

*New Case Lawhoa-boundary-dispute

Rural, equestrian, and large-scale planned developments may include properties with spacious lot sizes bordered by common area lots and open spaces. When property lines are not clearly delineated or easily identified in these communities, there may be instances where a homeowner seeks to expand his property by constructing yard improvements that extend beyond his property line and encroach onto adjacent, HOA-owned common area. If this is not discovered and addressed by the HOA in a timely fashion, there are avenues under California law through which the homeowner may assert that he has obtained an easement over (and in extreme circumstances, actual ownership of) the encroached area. The thought of a homeowner annexing common area for his/her own use is a scary thought, as is the prospect of the HOA failing to prevail in costly litigation that may be needed to reclaim its common area.

Fortunately, the recent holding in Nellie Gail Ranch Owners Association v. McMullin (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 982 (“McMullin”) helps strengthen a HOA’s ability to defeat a homeowner’s attempt to encroach onto common area and claim it as his own…
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*New Case Lawhoa-attorney-fees-governing-docs

Civil Code Section 5975(c) serves a vital function for any HOA’s enforcement efforts. Should a HOA be required to file a lawsuit to enforce its governing documents, Section 5975(c) entitles the HOA to recover from the defendant homeowner the HOA’s attorney’s fees, provided that the HOA is the “prevailing party” in the lawsuit. This right for a prevailing party to recover its attorney’s fees in an action to enforce a HOA’s governing documents is also commonly found in the provisions of a HOA’s CC&Rs.

But what is the technical definition of “prevailing party?” The Davis-Stirling Act does not define the term “prevailing party,” nor does it provide any metric for making that determination. As a result, California courts have concluded that the test for determining the prevailing party is a pragmatic one—namely, whether a party can be deemed the prevailing party requires a determination that the party “prevailed on a practical level by achieving its main litigation objective.” This test may be relatively easy to apply in some situations, and not so easy in others. For example, assume that a HOA’s lawsuit seeks to recover a substantial sum in fines for an owner’s violation of the rules, but the HOA is only awarded roughly 10% of that amount. Can the HOA be said to have achieved its main litigation objective, despite the fact that the ruling was arguably more favorable to the owner than it was to the HOA?

This hypothetical was actually litigated in the recent case of Almanor Lakeside Villas Owners Assn. v. Carson (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 761 (“Almanor”).  In Almanor, the defendant homeowners (the Carsons) were sued by the HOA to enforce provisions of the HOA’s CC&Rs relating to short-term rentals. The Carsons disputed the applicability of those provisions to them, as well as the HOA’s attempt to enforce other rules relating to trash storage, common area use, and boat decals, and to ultimately fine the Carsons for their violations of those rules. The trial court ruled that the HOA could enforce its rules and awarded attorney’s fees to the HOA in an amount of roughly $100,000, in addition to $6,620 in fines (approximately 10% of the amount originally imposed by the HOA and sought by it in the lawsuit). The Carsons appealed and lost. The HOA was deemed the prevailing party despite its inability to recover roughly 90% of the unpaid fines it originally pursued in the lawsuit.  The Court in Almanor concluded that the key issue in the lawsuit was the HOA’s authority to enforce the rules and to impose fines for violations, not the amount of the fines themselves. Because the trial court found that some of the fines were enforceable, the Court of Appeal held that the HOA “met its objective” in the lawsuit and was appropriately deemed the prevailing party:

“The fractional damages award does not negate the broader practical effect of the court’s ruling, which on the one hand narrowed the universe of restrictions that [the HOA] could impose on the properties, but on the other hand cemented [the HOA’s] authority to promulgate and enforce rules pursuant to the CC&Rs…Taken together and viewed in relation to the parties’ objectives…we conclude that these outcomes were adequate to support the trial court’s ruling [that the HOA was the prevailing party].” (Almanor, at 775.)

California HOA lawyers This holding provides valuable guidance on the issue of attorney’s fee awards in the context of HOA enforcement actions. Lawsuits to enforce a HOA’s governing documents often involve multiple claims or causes of action that asserted against a problematic homeowner. Even where a trial court is reluctant to grant every remedy sought by the HOA, if the practical effect of the lawsuit is consistent with the HOA’s principal objective (i.e., to make the homeowner comply with the governing documents), the HOA should still be deemed the prevailing party entitled to recover its attorney’s fees and costs incurred in connection with its lawsuit.
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