On January 20, 2015, a tragic fire ripped through a condominium complex in the city of San Juan Capistrano, killing three, injuring six, and displacing eighty residents living in eight units. The decedents were three of seventeen individuals living in a four-bedroom condominium. In light of the deaths and their relation to the number of occupants living in the unit, efforts are now underway to examine state and local occupancy restrictions with an eye towards preventing an incident like this from occurring in the future. To that end, questions have surfaced with respect to an association’s ability to adopt and enforce state and local occupancy standards, as well as to promulgate operating rules regulating the number of occupants living within a unit.
An association’s “operating rules” are regulations adopted by the board that apply “generally to the management and operation of the common interest development or the conduct of the business and affairs of the association.” (Civ. Code § 4340(a)) They relate to things such as the use of common area and separate interests, member discipline, and procedures for elections. (Civ. Code § 4355(a)(1)-(7)) In order to be valid and enforceable, the operating rule must meet several requirements: the rule must be (1) in writing, (2) within the authority of the Board of Directors conferred by law or the governing documents, (3) not in conflict with governing law and the governing documents, (4) adopted in good faith and in compliance with the procedural requirements set forth in Civil Code section 4360, and (5) reasonable. (Civ. Code § 4350) Accordingly, presuming that an occupancy rule is adopted by an association’s board of directors pursuant to the powers granted to it under the governing documents, the primary focus is whether the occupancy rule conflicts with governing law (i.e., California law).