The continuing saga of Brown vs Terravita HOA. Can CC&Rs amendments violate state law?

Summary

The AZ appellate court is deciding whether or not to permit an attorney fees award resulting from an ALJ decision not involving a contract. The law says no, but Terravita’s HOA attorneys think differently and managed to get a CC&Rs amendment passed that permits just such a violation of state law.  Brown, the homeowner/plaintiff, had filed a complaint against state statutes and not against the CC&Rs. Furthermore, the amendment does not represent a majority or supermajority vote, but a minority vote based on a 2010 “minority control” CC&Rs amendment.  In other words, Terravita has become an oligarchy in fact.  Will this influence the court’s decision?

Case history

Terravita is a1300 resident, more or less, HOA in Scottsdale, AZ, with country club and golf included.  William Brown is a long-time resident who has been active in challenging the Terravita board for some time, winning cases.  In fact, Terravita’s insurance company has specifically set a $75,000 deductible for suits filed by Brown, just for him alone. Can you guess why?[1]

The ongoing case from 2012, filed with the OAH was decided against Brown on a question of failing to hold an evidentiary hearing for Brown’s position (regarding evidence that an executive meeting was not an executive meeting and Brown was entitled to the records). The ALJ felt the hearing was not necessary and granted summary judgment against Brown.

 The Court’s Order upheld the Administrative Law Judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Terravita. Thus, Terravita is entitled to its attorneys’ fees and costs as the prevailing party under A.R.S. §§ 12-341.01 and 12-341 as well as under the Amended and Restated Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions for Terravita, as amended . . . .[2]

The HOA filed for attorney fees for the OAH hearing and for appellate costs. Uncertain that, in this ongoing case, Terravita will prevail under 12-341.01 and case history, which supports nonpayment of attorney fees in ALJ cases, Ekmark (The law firm of Ekmark & Ekmark) first argues that Brown is none other than “Bad, bad [Bill] Brown, meanest guy in the whole damned town”[3] (my words).  The application for fees, in my view, character assassinates and libels Brown using Uyleman v. D.S. Rentco to defend its claim for a discretionary fee award. Brown is described as:

This lawsuit was both unfounded and trifling. It was nothing more than an attempt to harass and burden the Terravita community . . . Plaintiff proceeded to waste the resources of the Court and Terravita by appealing this meritless case. . . . The burden of defending these spurious claims should not fall on innocent homeowners. Rather, it should fall on the Plaintiff who filed this action and appeal with no legal basis and with no reason other than to harass Terravita.

Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

In my view, this argument is a weak one designed to attack Brown. The second, but questionable, argument advanced by Terravita relates to the 2013 amended CC&Rs that permit such attorney fees in contradiction to state law.  (It raises questions of, who’s in charge?  The state? The municipality? The HOA? The HOA lawyers? Who??)  But in order to do so, Ekmark must claim that the OAH issue pertained contract and fees are payable under ARS  12-341.01.

Brown filed for a review and a superior court appeal of the decision, and then filed the ongoing appeal in the appellate court against the attorney fee award, CA-CV2014-000455.  He counters with, “The claim for attorneys’ fees under TCA’ s amended and restated declaration, in addition to defying credulity, is a misplaced transparent ex post facto attempt to trump well-settled Arizona law.”[4]

Brown presents his argument that the case is not a contract case but a violation of state law, having filed the OAH petition as a violation of state law, not of the CC&Rs.  (This is the question that should be before the courts, not one advanced after the fact by the attorneys in order to claim fees.) Apparently Brown’s wording was intentional, anticipating the HOA’s recourse to the 2013 amended CC&Rs.

Can CC&Rs covenants violate the Constitution or state law?

Under The Restatement (3rd) Servitudes, section 3.1,[5] the answer to the above question is NO!  As I wrote in 2005,[6]

When did “whatever the people privately contract” dominate the protections of the U.S. Constitution?

At the heart of the matter is the continued replacement of democratic local government, governments subject to the U.S. Constitution and 14th Amendment prohibitions, with contractual, authoritarian private governments that are not subject to the prohibitions of the 14th Amendment.

Can you and I contract to not pay income taxes?  Heavens no! But, can the HOA contract via amendments or rules to lower speed limits on public streets within its community? The courts would probably uphold the HOA’s position under 1) a validly adopted amendment, 2) members agreed to be bound by the governing documents, and 3) if the amendment is more restrictive than state law or ordinance.

What gives? Why the difference?  I’ve seen court decisions based on the business judgment rule,   (the board knows best), the amendment is in the best interests of the entire membership, and it’s the voice of the majority of the members.  But, this is not the case with Terravita and the attorney fees amendment.

Let’s go back to the 2010 Terravita amendment that was approved by the members allowing amendments to be passed by a minority of the membership,[7] contravening prevailing doctrine that supermajority approval was necessary for amending constitutions or charter.

Think for a moment.  If a minority can control the amendment process, it can control the HOA by enacting amendments that further strengthen the powers of the incumbent board.  Given the fact that the rogue boards are dominated by their HOA attorneys, minority control solidifies the political machines as the power elite.[8]

Consequently, as best as can be determined, the Terravita attorney fee amendment of 2013 passed with only 38% of the membership, although the board announced a misleading 90% approval. Based on Terravita’s email that 571 ballots were received, 90% would mean just 514 members approved the amendments or 38% overall membership approval.  Not even a majority!

OMG, the minority can speak for the majority, binding all of them to the amendments. So much for the board speaks for the majority of members. So much for HOAs being democratic.  Members who do not vote cannot be considered as approving the amendments.  Another democratic principal fallen by the wayside.

All brought to you under the advice and supervision of Ekmark, a CAI CCAL attorney.

Fortunately, a year later an Arizona bill, HB 2441, with similar provisions was put forth by another CAI CCAL member, Scott Carpenter, and failed. Carpenter characterized the bill as, “This change would enable community association to change their documents without onerous approval requirements that count a failure to participate as a ‘no’ vote.”[9]  In other words, create an oligarchy like Terravita with control by the few, and guided by attorneys, the HOA philosopher-kings.

In conclusion, how will the Arizona appellate court decide this case against Terravita?  For the survival of the defective  HOA regardless of the harm to the principals of our system of government, or will the court stand up and be counted, saying enough is enough?

References

[1] It would seem that the insurance company was going to pull its E & O insurance, but settled for this arrangement.

[2] Terravita’s application for attorneys’ fees  for (Ekmark & Ekmark)

[3] Jim Croce lyrics from Bad, Bad Leroy Brown:

“And it’s bad, bad Leroy Brown The baddest man in the whole damned town Badder than old King Kong And meaner than a junkyard dog.”

[4] See Brown’s 22 page opening brief, 1 CA-CV2014-000455, 9-16-2015. In addition, the amendment to § 17.08 only grants attorney fees to the HOA if it wins; the homeowner gets nothing.

[5] “A servitude . . . is valid unless it is illegal or unconstitutional or violates public policy [being]  a servitude that is arbitrary, spiteful, or capricious.”

[6] HOA reforms needed to guarantee U.S. Constitutional protections.

[7] Section 17.02 of the 2-10-2010 amended CC&Rs: “This Declaration may be amended by the affirmative vote or written consent, or any combination thereof, of the Owners holding not less than two-thirds (2/3) of the votes cast, provided that the total vote equals or exceeds Quorum.” A quorum being 1/3 of the membership.  Thus 1/3 of 2/3 = 307 affirmative votes out of 1380 members.

[8] See Beware the folly of eliminating supermajority voting for amending the HOA CC&Rs; HOA democracy at work: dysfunctional adoption of amendments by minority vote.

[9] Carpenter Hazlewood Delgado & Wood blog of Jan. 18, 2011, written by Scott Carpenter, “HB2441 – CC&R Amendments.”

Does the Constitution support the will of the HOA no matter what?

A rogue board is operating at Terravita HOA in Scottsdale, AZ. In short, the HOA attorney saw no problem in adding a restrictive covenant that would allow OAH attorney fees regardless of the law that OAH is not allowed to award attorney fees.[1] It was properly passed by the Terravita members. Since the validity of the covenant was not challenged, the following scenario evolved.

Based on the wording of the covenant, the sole target was a resident, Mr. Brown, the only person who meets this classification in Terravita. Section 17.01, Article XVII, of the Terravita Declaration reads,

[I]n bringing claims against Owners or defending claims brought by Owners in an administrative action or proceeding, including but not limited to, proceedings before an Administrative Law Judge, and any appeal thereof; the Association shall be entitled to recover its attorneys’ fees and costs from the Owner involved in the administrative proceeding if the Association is a prevailing party in such action, and the amount of such attorneys’ fees . . . .

The battle between Brown and the board also involved CAI attorney Ekmark, where there is plenty of history, Brown having filed several suits and won them and publicized the amount of HOA funds spent on minor litigation.

In this instance, Brown was seeking access to board minutes at a meeting alleged to be an executive meeting where the minutes are exempt from disclosure. The problem, according to Brown, was that he was not allowed to present evidence that the meeting was not an executive meeting.  The court simply took Ekmark’s word that it was an executive meeting.

Being the prevailing party, the HOA then claimed attorney fees for the OAH appellate costs, the basis of Brown’s current appeal (CA-CV 14-000455, Division 1). (I avoid the other pertinent legal issues involved in this case and focus on the validity of the covenant.)

The question I raise is that the covenant was invalid, being an unconstitutional deprivation of due process and the equal protection of the law. Once again, like the CC&Rs, can a private organization draft a document or rule that conflicts with state law and yet be held legally binding by the courts? (When does it stop?) And since the covenant was enforced by the courts, there are grounds for filing a deprivation of rights suit under 41 USC 1983[2] (“under color of any statute”) and claiming state action by Terravita.

Understand that, in general, court enforcement of a CC&Rs agreement to abide by the majority decision under a valid amendment procedure alone fails to uphold the principals of our democracy.  The Constitution does not say that the majority is always right.  The 5th and 14th Amendments do not contain exceptions like, “

no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law (5th & 14th Amendments) . . . nor deny the equal protection of the law (14th Amendment) unless approved by a majority or supermajority vote as contained in the governing documents.

The case before us is another example of judicial populism that holds that the will of the majority shall prevail no matter what.  How far have the courts gone in ignoring the Constitution and allowing unrestricted private individual or group “rewrites” of the Constitution to be binding? 

By such court activism, the America of today not the America of your father or your grandfather.

References

[1] OAH, the Office of Administrative Hearings, is an executive agency obtaining it powers and authorities from the legislature’s enabling act.  The statutes (ARS 41-1092 et seq.; 41-2198 et seq.) and Administrative Code (R2-19-101 et seq.) do not grant the OAH the power to award attorney fees.

[2] 42 USC 1983, Section 1983. Civil action for deprivation of rights

 “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such    officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted  unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was    unavailable.”