Calif. holds HOA elections as protected free speech public elections

Speaking of HOA members and public voting rights, “Why Are HOA Members Allowed A Public Vote?”[1], let’s look at the reverse side and ask, Why aren’t HOA elections equivalent to public elections?  This is another example of how successful constitutional challenges can lead to and bring about broad HOA reform legislation.

Many of us are aware of the treatment of dissenting and opposing voices with respect to BOD actions and elections. There are the threats by rogue BODs of harm, and of  slanderous and libelous statements aimed to discredit and injure the dissenter’s reputation. And then, in true attack the attackers,  there are the lawsuits by the BOD claiming that the dissenter’s speech was harmful and injured the reputation of the HOA and/or BOD members.

Anti-SLAPP

These lawsuits are referred to as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – SLAPP —  whose purpose is to silence the dissenting homeowner(s) by arguing that the HOA/BOD was defamed.[2]  In the name of justice, or the appearance of justice, many states have adopted anti-SLAPP statutes to protect the dissenters; in our case here, the homeowners. The common criteria to file an anti-slapp suit includes (my emphasis):

A moving party may file a special motion to dismiss [the HOA suit] under [the state’s] antiSLAPP statutes “if an [HOA] action is filed in retaliation to the exercise of free speech [homeowner dissent].” In considering a special motion to dismiss, a district court must undertake a two-prong analysis. First, the court must determine whether the moving party [homeowner] has, by a preponderance of the evidence, established that the action [anti-slapp motion] is based upon a good faith communication in furtherance of the right to free speech in direct connection with an issue of public concern.

Furthermore, 1)  the statement must be made without knowledge of falsehood or truth with respect to a public concern, 2) the statement must be made in a place open to the public or in a public forum, and 3) “aimed at procuring any governmental or electoral action, result or outcome.” WOW! No chance in hell to bring an anti-Slapp suit against an HOA.

HOA elections are public

However, as expected, the anti-slapp statutes vary from state to state with Arizona adopting the very strict government election requirement while California has held, over several court cases, that (my emphasis):

California courts have repeatedly held in the context of anti-SLAPP litigation that board meetings of a homeowners association “serve[] a function similar to that of a governmental body. As [the California] Supreme Court has recognized, owners of planned development units “‘comprise a little democratic subsociety.”‘ … 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.”[3]

The use of mail or internet – social media or websites open to the public —  have been held by the California courts to be “ a public forum.”   Nextdoor was held to be a public forum in spite of the fact it functions as a closed group, but its intent is clearly to be open to anyone.[4]

This is another important tool for homeowners and advocates to use in CA, and to lobby for the same return to justice anti-slapp laws in other states.

Notes

[1] George K. Staropoli, “Why are HOA members allowed a public vote?” HOA Constitutional Government (July 20, 2019).

[2] See in general, Colorado’s anti-Slapp statute, Colorado becomes 31st State.

[3] Quoted Appellant’s Opening Brief,  Kosor v. Olympia Companies, LLC, (Nev. SC NO.75669, Feb. 8, 2019). At this writing Kosor has not yet been accepted to be heard by the Nevada Supreme Court.

[4] Id, Part C, vii, printed page 33.  See Kronemyer v. Internet Movie Data Base, Inc., 59 Cal. Rptr. 3d 48 (2007).

Judicial error regarding HOAs as mini-governments and state actors

Two cases directly dealing with HOAs as mini or quasi governments by means of state actions tests have come to my attention: Brock v. Watergate and Westphal v. Lake Lotawana.[1] (The question of an HOA being a state actor is not raised, but that a specific act of the HOA is a state action. The questions are fundamentally different.) The decisions were based on the public functions (company town) test and one of the US Supreme Court criteria, the “close nexus” test.[2]

Here the question of an HOA being a municipality is linked to showing a comparison with company towns (established by corporations to provide housing for their employees) under the public functions test, which was held to be a municipality. The Court then makes the giant leap to hold that since the HOA was not a company town, and therefore not a municipality, none of its actions can be considered a state action. The Court’s illogical conclusion is that no act of a private entity can be considered a state action, because the entity is not a municipality! This attitude makes a mockery of state action/actors laws that protect citizens from quasi-governments. (Think about this after reading the excerpt below.)

The 1987 Florida Brock opinion, just 4 years after the court quoted Wayne Hyatt’s opposing view in Cohen Hill (see note 2), held that:

A homeowner’s association lacks the municipal character of a company town. In the case of an association, the homeowners own their property and hold title to the common areas pro rata. Moreover, the services provided by a homeowners association, unlike those provided in a company town, are merely a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, those provided by local government. As such, it cannot be said that the homeowners association in this case acts in a sufficiently public manner so as to subject its activities to a state action analysis. Moreover, the association’s maintenance, assessment, and collection activities are not sufficiently connected to the State to warrant a finding of state action. The state cannot be implicated in the association’s activities solely because the association is subject to State law. We conclude that the association in this case does not stand in the position.

(The Court did not realize that most HOA common areas and facilities are not owned by the members, but by the HOA corporation. The members are third-party beneficiaries. The second sentence above is not accurate.)

In further shocking dicta (unsupported legal authority for statements) in the above quote (see To Be in note 2), the Court declared that HOA services are merely a supplement to local government and that as a supplement its acts are insufficiently municipal in nature. Say what?

Well, I got news for the Court. Applying the “common meaning of the word doctrine” shows that “to supplement” means “to complete, add to, or extend by a supplement” and a “supplement” means “something added to complete a thing, supply a deficiency, or reinforce or extend a whole.”  With this definition the HOA would be a part of local government to complete it or supply a deficiency.  The HOA is a municipality!

Sadly, the narrow focus on individual and separate acts and actions to determine the involvement of the state in the functions and activities of the HOA is misguided.  Rather, it is the collection of the numerous acts of the HOA that should be used to determine whether or not the HOA is an arm of the state and stands in place of the state.  Consider for example, does local government supplement state government?  Does town local government stand in the place of state government?

However, based on the irrational argument used in Brock, as quoted above, the Court ruled that the HOA “does not stand in the position of a government.”

 

In the 2003 Missouri Lake Lotawana opinion, the Court reversed the trial court’s ruling, asking for a declaratory judgment, using the irrational opinion in Brock and held that the plaintiff’s allegations “require state action, and that, here, there is no state action because the Association is not a state agent. . . . the trial court is effectively saying that Mr. Westphal can have no claim because the Association is not a state actor.”

On the other issues the plaintiff directly alleged state action, arguing that,

[T]hat the Association’s conduct is state action because the Association is a quasi-governmental entity.  He maintains that the Association ‘operates as a ‘mini-government’ because it raises money through dues, has an elected governing body, enacts rules and regulations, and enforces such rules through the court system. In support of this argument, Mr. Westphal relies on [Chesus and Terre du Lac].[3]

Referring to the two cases, the Court concluded,

While both cases discuss how a homeowner’s association operates as a “quasi-governmental entity,” neither is authority for the concept that an association’s “quasi-governmental” actions are state actions. Mr. Westphal fails to cite any authority to support his argument that the action of a quasi-governmental entity is state action.

First, the Court selectively only used the term “quasi” and ignored “mini” as in stated Chesus. “Mini,” of course, speaks of a small municipality, yet a municipality. Both cases simply, without further ado, quote the same Wayne Hyatt statements as I quoted in To Be (see note 2) that contain both words.

And the Court is technically correct with regard to a lack of a court finding, but taking such a view makes a mockery of the law and is highly illogical. As argued since “quasi” means “like,” then any action of a quasi-government must be, a quasi-state action. The degree of “quasi” must extend to state actions, too. Stop the “word games”!

“Quasi” must be defined, but not in terms of the public functions test or private entity devise. It must be defined in accordance with our constitutional system of government that cannot allow for outlaw governments to stand alongside constitutional local government.

This commentary, somewhat technical at times, demonstrates the failure of the courts to address the fundamental issues that HOAs are mini-governments, and that by the collective functions and actions of HOAs there is clear and convincing evidence to make the case that they are indeed state actors. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

(As a reminder, I am not a lawyer and I simply offer my views on HOA-Land.)

Notes

[1] Brock v. Watergate, 502 So.2d 1380 (Fla. 4 Dist. App. (1987); Westphal v. Lake Lotawana, 95 S.W.3d 144 (Mo. App. 2003).

[2] See in general, To be or not to be a mini or quasi government? Hyatt said ‘yes’; Do state HOA Statutes Establish HOAs as State Actors?

[3] Chesus v. Watts, 967 S.W.2d 97 (MO. APP. 1998);  Terre du Lac Assn v. Terre du Lac, Inc., 737 S.W.2d 206 (MO. App. 1987)

To be or not to be a mini or quasi government? Hyatt said ‘yes’

The controversy over whether or not HOAs are mini-governments or quasi-governments needs to be fully understood.  While I have written extensively on this topic,[1] allow me to take another peek into the controversy.

As an eye opener to many, I have extensively quoted Wayne Hyatt’s[2] 1976 statement on HOAs as mini-governments, as cited in the 1983 California case, Cohen v. Kite Hill.[3]  (My emphasis).

 

In a thoughtful article[4] . . . Hyatt and Rhoads note the increasingly “quasi-governmental” nature of the responsibilities of such associations: “The other essential role directly relates to the association’s regulatory powers; and upon analysis of the association’s functions, one clearly sees the association as a quasi-government entity paralleling in almost every case the powers, duties, and responsibilities of a municipal government. As a ‘mini-government,‘ the association provides to its members, in almost every case, utility services, road maintenance, street and common area lighting, and refuse removal. In many cases, it also provides security services and various forms of communication within the community. There is, moreover, a clear analogy to the municipal police and public safety functions. All of these functions are financed through assessments or taxes levied upon the members of the community, with powers vested in the board of directors, council of co-owners, board of managers, or other similar body clearly analogous to the governing body of a municipality. Terminology varies from region to region; however, the duties and responsibilities remain the same.”

“Because each owner automatically becomes a member of the association upon taking title … the association has the power, and in many cases the obligation, to exert tremendous influence on the bundle of rights normally enjoyed as a concomitant part of fee simple ownership of property.”

“With power, of course, comes the potential for abuse. Therefore, the Association must be held to a high standard of responsibility: “The business and governmental aspects of the association and the association’s relationship to its members clearly give rise to a special sense of responsibility upon the officers and directors…. This special responsibility is manifested in the requirements of fiduciary duties and the requirements of due process, equal protection, and fair dealing.” [Sound familiar?]

Yet, this recognized international figure’s statements were ignored and not cited in a number of subsequent decisions. Instead, the courts preferred the antiquated, non-HOA decisions of the 1946 and 1948 “company town,” public functions test decisions in Marsh v. Alabama and Shelly v. Kraemer. These decisions predated the current HOA concept and legalities created in 1964 and were relied on.[5]  Like the “walking dead,” Marsh should be shot in the head and put away for good!

Now, to fully understand the issue we need to play the lawyer game and examine and parse the meanings of words and phrases.  Sorry, we must because that’s what HOA attorneys do — they can’t help it.

What is a mini-government? A quasi-government?  Following the recognized common meaning of words doctrine, “mini” means small and “quasi” means like.”  So, are we talking about small public governments? If so, I think this term answers the question that HOAs are small public governments.

Or are we talking about governments like public governments?  “Like” implies not really, but has the feel, or aura, or legalities of a public government.  If so, to what extent does a government become a public government?  How much “likeliness” is needed?  To what extent should homeowners have “like” constitutional protections?  All of them or some?  Or just some that give the appearance of constitutional rights and freedoms?

It seems that HOAs already have a number of “like” protections, but totally deficient and failing to protect the people.  They treat the HOA members as if they are “like” US citizens, having surrendered their citizenship.  This cannot be tolerated in a nation that prides itself as the ideal democratic country in the world.  Not at all!

It’s time to stop playing the HOA lawyer “word games” and accept the reality that HOAs are outlaw governments and must be held accountable under the Constitutional, as is required of all other governing bodies including those under Home Rule statutes.

References

[1] See in general: Do state HOA Statutes Establish HOAs as State Actors? (2007); The Constitutionality of state protected homeowners associations (2009) (Discussion on Hyatt’s view); HOA Case History: state actors or mini/quasi government (2011).

[2] Wayne Hyatt was a prominent figure in the promotion of HOA-Land as well as an important person in creating CAI in 1973, serving as its second president.

[3] Cohen v. Kite Hill, p. 5-6, 142 Cal App 3d 642 (1983), citing Raven’s Cove Townhomes, Inc. v. Knuppe Development Co. (1981) 114 Cal.App.3d 783, 799 [171 Cal.Rptr. 334]). Cohen has been cited in Terre Du Lac Ass’n, Inc. v. Terre Du Lac, Inc., 737 S.W.2d 206 (Mo. App. 1987); Damon v. Ocean Hills Journalism Club, 85 Cal. App. 4th 468 (2000).

[4] “Concepts of Liability in the Development and Administration of Condominium and Home Owners Associations” 12 Wake Forest Law Review at page 915, (1976).

[5] Brock v. Watergate, 502 So.2d 1380 (Fla. 4 Dist. App. (1987) (close nexus dicta); Midlake v. Cappuccio, 673 A 2d 340 (PA. Super. 1996); S.O.C. v. Mirage Casino-Hotel, 43 P 3rd 243 (Nev. 2001); Westphal v. Lake Lotawana, 95 S.W.3d 144 (Mo. App. 2003) (“Mr. Westphal fails to cite any authority to support his argument that the action of a quasi-governmental entity is state action.”)

Protecting HOA political free speech on matters of general community interest

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).

[My emphasis]

“[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.

Case references:

  1. Santa Barbara Beach Club HOA v. Freeman, 2d Civil No. B212972 (Cal. App. 2nd 2010)
  2. Ruiz v. Harbor View CA, 37 Cal.Rptr.3d 133 (2005)
  3. Damon v. Ocean Hills [an HOA], 102 Cal.Rptr.2d 205 (2000)

Colorado HOA act creates state actors?

I give credit to the Colorado Legislature for stating its intent, its position, on supporting HOAs, which is rarely found in other state statutes.  Section 38-33.3-102 reads (in part):

Legislative declaration

(1) The general assembly hereby finds, determines, and declares, as follows:

(a) That it is in the best interests of the state and its citizens to establish a clear, comprehensive, and uniform framework for the creation and operation of common interest communities;

(b) That the continuation of the economic prosperity of Colorado is dependent upon the strengthening of homeowner associations in common interest communities financially through the setting of budget guidelines, the creation of statutory assessment liens, the granting of six months’ lien priority, the facilitation of borrowing, and more certain powers in the association to sue on behalf of the owners and through enhancing the financial stability of associations by increasing the association’s powers to collect delinquent assessments, late charges, fines, and enforcement costs;

 

Subsections (c) – (e) contain basically the same theme — don’t let the HOA fail by providing the developer with certain financial protections and operating rules on good management.  In a bold, in your face statement the statute contains an annotation, which reads:

There is no support for the proposition that enactment of a legislative scheme governing the operation of homeowners’ association thereby transforms such homeowners’ association into cities or other governmental entities. Woodmoor Improvement Ass’n v. Brenner, 919 P.2d 928 (Colo. App. 1996).

This 1996 authority still holds true today.  State governments regulate people and entities by establishing laws, such as these HOA “acts” under its police powers “to promote the general welfare.”   That has come to mean to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the people.  The issue at hand, which has not been tested in the courts, is: when does and under what circumstances do these HOA acts create HOAs as state actors?[1]

It would seem that just from this Legislative Declaration of purpose there are reasonable grounds to suspect state cooperation (no penalties against HOA violations of state laws or the governing documents), coercion (foreclosure, pay or lose your home, etc.), and support for HOAs, a close nexus with daily operations (closely involved on HOA management) s symbiotic relationship (you help me, I help you), significant encouragement, either overtly or covertly.[2]  But no mention of any protections of due process and the equal protection of the laws as an objective of its involvement in HOA-Land.

Note that subsection 1(a) above speaks not of individual statutes, but of “a clear, comprehensive, and uniform framework” to support HOAs. Therefore, we must look at the overall picture of the HOA act and determine its broad impact on HOAs, and whether the legal scheme or structure establishes state actors.  And in 1(b) above the general assembly makes a case for establishing state actors when it states, “by increasing the association’s powers to collect delinquent assessments, late charges, fines, and enforcement costs.”  The details can be found within the act itself.

Please understand that in the statutes, both in Colorado and in other states, the statutes give the appearance of protecting the homeowner and his rights, but this is an illusion. What does the homeowner do if the board violates the law?  His ultimate recourse is to sue the HOA in civil court, but the statutes and governing documents (and court case history) are protective of the HOA as this Colorado section clearly demonstrates.

Where are the constitutional protections that would remove the HOA member as a second-class citizen?  To bring him back into the American Zone? They are nowhere to be found!  Why?  Because the state believes that the homebuyer has freely and with full knowledge agreed to be bound by the explicit and implied waivers in the governing documents.  But, have they?[3]

It would seem that the Colorado General Assembly has crossed the line and by its HOA statutes created HOAs as state actors.

References

[1] See, in general, HOA Common Sense, No. 9: HOA governments in fact.

[2] See Do state HOA Statutes Establish HOAs as State Actors?

[3] See HOA Common Sense, No. 4: Consent to be governed