A lesson in professional conduct for HOA attorneys

While there are many anecdotal claims of attorneys for HOAs acting unprofessionally and unethically, there are sufficient instances documenting such conduct.  I have encountered and witnessed some myself. Few have been charged to my knowledge. 

The most common, in my experience,  is a violation of civil court procedure where the attorney churns the account, seeks many continuances, and raises dubious claims based on the extension of commonly accepted legal doctrine and terminology.  Fortunately, I am not an attorney and need not concern myself with extending “professional courtesies” to my opponents.

The questionable conduct I am addressing can be found in federal rules and in various state 1) supreme court Rules of Professional Conduct, usually under Rule 42, E. R. 1.13, Organization as a Client, and 2) under Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 11(b), Signing pleadings . . . Representations to the Court.

Rule 11(b) states (emphasis added), in short,

“By signing a pleading . . . the attorney or party certifies that to the best of the person’s knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry:

“[I]t is not being presented for any improper purpose . . . or needlessly increase the cost of litigation . . . and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument . . .  the factual contentions have evidentiary support  . . . the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence.”

Rule E.R. 1.13 states (emphasis added), in short,

“(a) A lawyer employed or retained by an organization [HOA] represents the organization acting through its duly authorized constituents [the BOD].

“(b) If a lawyer for an organization knows that an officer, employee or other person associated with the organization is engaged in action. . . that is a violation of a legal obligation to the organization [directors duties for example], or a violation of law . . . the lawyer shall refer the matter to higher authority in the organization.”

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I am quite pleased with the opinion by the Arizona Appellate Court in Arizona Biltmore Hotels Condo Assn v. Conlon (CACV 18-0709, June 23, 2020). This involved case of over 10 years, multiple parties, and 3 lawsuits dealt with a conflict of interest by the association’s president. He also owned several properties (a dual role conflict) subject to claims of who would get parking lot rental income.

My point of interest lies in the Court’s inclusion of a statement by the attorney for the association president in  the 2013 lawsuit and used as evidence in the current case.  Here we find a highly regarded law firm standing by its obligations under professional conduct and certification to the court, as above.

The president hired Cheifetz, Iannitelli & Marcolini, CIM,  (now Iannitelli Marconi) on behalf of the association.   “CIM soon raised concerns about the merits of the Association’s lawsuit and shared those concerns in a letter to [the president]” who did not pass the concerns to the board.   As required, if CIM believed that there were serious concerns, it brought their concerns to the board a year later.

Now removed as president and still a director and still owner of the TCG firm in conflict, the Courted quoted CIM’s position in this president gone wrong case.

“CIM became frustrated with [the president/director] strategy and told him:

“Our duty is not to [TCG], it is to our client, the Villas Association, and the [condominium] community as a whole. As a member of the Board you have fiduciary duties. Given these fiduciary duties, we are at a complete loss to understand upon what basis you deem it appropriate to intentionally seek to sabotage the Board’s efforts to attempt to resolve the pending lawsuit with . . . . ”

The 2013 Court found the director guilty. It held “that [he] both breached his fiduciary duties and negligently misrepresented facts to the Association . . . controlled the information and did not make full and necessary disclosures.”

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FYI — The “Cheifetz” above is none other than Steve Cheifetz, former CIM manager now retired, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and exchanging views on HOA law and cases.  He worked closely with Jonathan Dessaules, another outstanding Arizona attorney taking on homeowner cases.

AZ fair elections reform bill SB 1412 moves on

On May 21st, after a long interruption due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the Arizona House passed SB 1412 by a unanimous vote of 11 – 0 in favor. GREAT! It joins California’s SB 323 passed into law last year.

See Authorities for protected HOA political speech — SB 1412 poll and AZ SB 1412 reflects move to HOA constitutional reforms.

Colorado HB 1200 needs your active support

Colorado’s HB 1200,[i] brought to my attention by journalist Ruthy Wexler, is an outstanding bill that provides for the long ignored, not my job, state oversight of HOA violations. It is a measure that provides the constitutional protections against depriving “a person of property without due process of law” and against denying “the equal protection of the laws.” These protections have been denied by the HOA “constitution,” its CC&Rs. Although a private contract, these protections cannot be waived.

HB 1200 is a much more protective bill of homeowner rights and freedoms as was introduced in Arizona in 2006 and adopted in the face of stringent opposition by CAI. CAI then proceeded in 3 court cases over 4 years to have the statute declared unconstitutional and have the ruling applied to all Arizona HOAs. It almost won but the Arizona Supreme Court denied it precedent value and in 2011 the statute was amended to handle CAI’s claims of unconstitutionality. It is in operation today under Arizona’s real estate department.

I was actively involved in the creation of this Office of Admin. Hearings adjudication of HOA disputes and in the defense of its constitutionality.[ii]

The role of CAI, as presented above, should not be taken lightly. Strong and active homeowner support will be necessary to carry this bill to law. I commented on former Colorado Senate President Morgan Carroll’s book:

Yes, there have been champions of HOA reform, but advocates fail to realize that these legislators must buck the powers that be at the legislature and win over the votes of a majority of other legislators. And this takes outcries by many people, not with gripes of “I wuz wronged!” but with valid arguments as to why HOAs are wrong for the state and the general public well-being.  And how to fix  these wrongs.[iii]

Take heed Coloradans and get behind the sponsors today!

Notes

[i] HB 1200.

[ii] See AZ Supreme Court accepts advocate’s amicus brief in challenge to HOA statute.

[iii] See Why HOA reform advocates fail at legislative reforms (2011).

AZ SB 1088 is an unconstitutional and selective impairment of a contract bill

Arizona’s SB 1088 bill seeks to invalidate CC&Rs that require approval by a homeowner to allow any visitor access to the homeowner.  It specifically deals with — and is only meaningful with respect to gated communities which are gated for a very good reason — not hindering process servers access to a homeowner defendant.  It is punitive with a $250 “civil penalty” for anyone violating this law.

Background 

Under our laws and judicial system a plaintiff must service notice of a lawsuit upon a defendant as required by the Constitution.[1]  It is well known that there are people who act to avoid being served notice, which stops any lawsuit from moving forward. However, the law does allow for posting the summons notice to the public notices page of a newspaper in the event the defendant cannot be personally contacted.[2]

Impairing the obligation of contracts

The proponents’ argument would be generally along the lines that “due process under the law” triumphs over any contract infringement violation as a matter of public policy and for the general good of the people. An HOA covenant cannot hinder constitutional due process of law and the equal application of the law to a person, not necessarily an HOA, who is suing a defendant in such an HOA.  It’s not fair they would cry, referring to the greater good served outside the HOA.

But, the bill seems to be unnecessary as there are other means to satisfy civil procedure process servers.  It would also not pass judicial scrutiny[3] required to deny constitutional rights under contract infringement.  The bill seems to be sponsored as a request from a constituent facing some problem that lacks merit, considering the alternative methods available for service notice by process servers.

Selective enforcement of the law

It is long held doctrine that a government cannot pick and choose what laws to enforce or to ignore, and still be seen as a legitimate government.  The entirety of the covenants in a declaration of CC&Rs — allegedly constituting the voice of the people in a private contract to not be bound by the Constitution and the laws of the land — contains many, many covenants that violate the protected rights of the people.

Yet the state stands idly by and does nothing to end these private contractual violations of the constitution’s requirement for the equal protection of the law.  The CC&Rs are a mockery of due process protections, of fair elections, of eminent domain protections, of cruel and unusual punishment by foreclosure rights, of contract law misrepresentation and full disclosure violations, of the failure to provide civil penalties against HOA violations of the law, etc.

They are either ignored or have the “blessings” of the legislature as a result of laws that coerce compliance with the HOA, cooperate with the HOA, or closely interact with the day-to-day operations of the HOA. Any of which would make the HOA a state actor subject to the Constitution.

SB 1088 is a selective impairment of contract obligations while other infringements of the laws are allowed to stand. Adopting this bill would be a mockery of the law.

 

References

[1] 14th Amendment, “Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

[2] Ariz. R. Civ. P., 4.1(n). “Where the person being served . . . has avoided service of process . . . then service may be by publication  . . . . “ Also, Rule 4.1(m) allows for “alternative or substituted service.”

[3] Judicial scrutiny relating to constitutional rights requires a compelling and necessary government interest, not a general government interest, to deny protected rights.  See, in general, Arizona’s HB 2382 is an unconstitutional violation of eminent domain law.

HOA claim of a loss in property value

A recent Arizona appellate court case provides some light on the alleged “loss of property value” argument generally made by HOAs in response to a homeowner’s action. In this straight-forward decision (Mason v. Whisper Ranch HOA,  CA-CV 2015-0053 (Ariz. App. Div. 2 (2015)) a homeowner objected to the addition of a detached garage by his neighbor, claiming among other things, a loss in his property value.

In spite of the approval of the HOA, the plaintiffs sued the neighbor and HOA were sued. In a memorandum decision, which means no new law was involved, the court held that the plaintiff failed to document the alleged decrease in his property value. Damages, which this was one, must be documented as to the amount. However, the appellants had to first prove damages which could only be shown by numbers. (If damages were acknowledged by both parties and a method of calculations cannot be applied, then a general number may be used).

How can the loss in value be calculated? Well, one can use real estate “comps” – comparative values – to set a value of the property. While this can be debated because of so many and, ifs or buts, it’s the only acceptable rational method. But then, can this method be used to show a loss in value (or increase for that matter)? Can a panel of “experts” be used to arrive at a change in value? Fat chance!

Must the plaintiff wait to get a bona fide offer? If so, does he have a bona fide offer before the neighbor’s new garage?

Even if the neighbor painted his house pink, how do you decide the loss in value, if any? (I am aware of a homeowner in Phoenix who did paint his house pink in an angry response to commercial development next to his property. His home did sell after, I’m sure, his price was reduced by the amount required to repaint the house an acceptable and conforming color. No impact on neighbors.)

Of, course, the HOA has other grounds for suing, like nonconformity to the overall aesthetics of the HOA.   The point is, make the HOA prove any loss in value!