Should matters of concern and interest to the general HOA member-community be protected from suits designed to stifle participation in HOA governance? Homeowners in HOAs should be protected from these suits, called SLAPP suits, just as the general public is protected in most states that have anti-SLAPP laws.
The question becomes: will the courts hold issues of HOA governance to be a matter of general public interest and concern? A failure of the courts to do so puts HOA governments solidly into the category of independent principalities, where members are not permitted free speech on community public issues, especially about their governing body, the HOA.
The expected defenses are 1) that HOAs are private, contractual governing bodies not subject to the 14th Amendment protections, which the members have agreed to obey; and disregarding the Ruiz opinion above, 2) the local HOA community cannot be considered as a public body that is interested in and concerned with matters of public interest; it’s a local, private matter.
There are several California cases holding that HOA concerns amount to public speech because it affects the community at large. The following are anti-SLAPP suits.
“A SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) is a lawsuit brought primarily to chill a party’s constitutional right of petition or free speech. The anti-SLAPP statute was enacted to prevent and deter lawsuits that chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances and provides “an efficient procedural mechanism to obtain an early and inexpensive dismissal of nonmeritorious claims” arising from the exercise of those constitutional rights. . . . . The resident’s front lawn is a public forum for purposes of the First Amendment. . . . Moreover, it is now well established that the anti-SLAPP statute protects private conversations as well as those occurring in a public forum.” (Santa Barbara).
“’Public interest’ within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute has been broadly defined to include, in addition to government matters, ‘private conduct that impacts a broad segment of society and/or that affects a community in a manner similar to that of a governmental entity.’ (Ruiz; according to California statutes).
“[W]e hold the trial court properly determined the anti-SLAPP statute applied because the evidence showed the alleged defamatory statements were made “in a place open to the public or in a public forum” and concerned “an issue of public interest. . . . The two locations where the alleged defamatory statements were made–at the Board meetings and in the Village Voice newsletter [HOA] –were open to the public and constituted “public forums.” Additionally, because each of the allegedly defamatory statements concerned [*11] the manner in which a large residential community would be governed, they concerned “issue[s] of public interest.” (Damon).
“A homeowners association board is in effect ‘a quasi-government entity paralleling in almost every case the powers, duties, and responsibilities of a municipal government’ (citing Cohen v. Kite Hill Community Assn).” (Damon).
My quick survey of state anti-SLAPP laws shows AZ, IL, HI, GA and MD as having strict laws relating to only issues before the legislature or a law, as petitioning rights. A host of other states contain the much broader right to file an anti-SLAPP suit for issues of public interest. They are: CA, FL (as of 7/2015), IN, LA, OR, RI, TX, VT, and WA. Check current status.
- Santa Barbara Beach Club HOA v. Freeman, 2d Civil No. B212972 (Cal. App. 2nd 2010)
- Ruiz v. Harbor View CA, 37 Cal.Rptr.3d 133 (2005)
- Damon v. Ocean Hills [an HOA], 102 Cal.Rptr.2d 205 (2000)