Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Unhappy Property (Manager) Loses in South Carolina

“If you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur.” - Anonymous
In South Carolina, as in most states, there exist various consumer protection and licensing laws, intended to protect the public from the unauthorized practice of law (or “UPL”, as it is often referred).  Of course, only lawyers licensed in the state in question can practice law in that state, but the question sometimes arises as to what actually constitutes “practicing law”. Community Management Group, which manages HOAs in the coastal, lowcountry part of South Carolina in and around Charleston County, was the subject of a recent South Carolina Supreme Court case. CMG was found to be in violation of the UPL laws in the recent case of Rogers Townsend & Thomas v. Peck, et al.
CMG represented its HOA clients in magistrate’s court where it prepared the lawsuit and went to court on behalf of its HOA clients to collect outstanding assessments.  When it obtained a judgment, CMG would then file the judgment with the circuit court, thereby making the judgment a circuit court judgment against the debtor.
Additionally, CMG would prepare and record liens against debtors, and in its own words, intended the lien to “put a cloud on the title”, rendering the property unsaleable until the lien was paid.
Finally, CMG advertised itself as capable of “hand[ling] collections, lien filing and Small Claims Court actions in house.”
The South Carolina Supreme Court determined that all of the foregoing acts by CMG were, in fact, the unauthorized practice of law which required representation by an attorney.  Underlying the court’s ruling is longstanding law that defines the practice of law to include the preparation of court documents, the management of proceedings on behalf of clients before courts, and the preparation and recording of legal instruments.
The court was requested to hold that CMG’s practice of interpreting declarations of restrictive covenants, “addressing disputes” (we are not exactly sure what this phrase means) between HOAs and owners, and advising HOAs on remedies to collect unpaid assessments, also constituted the unauthorized practice of law.  The court declined to opine as to whether these acts were UPL because it had no specific evidence in front of it.
The case is not groundbreaking, but it is a stark reminder that the courts in South Carolina, and in most other states, strictly regulate what is, and is not, the practice law within the state and those who exceed the bounds are asking for trouble.  When in doubt, it’s best to leave court filings and, always, court appearances, to licensed attorneys. To read the case, click here.

Please give us a call or drop us an email if our HOA law team can assist your HOA or management company with manager loses, or if we can be of assistance in any other way regarding legal issues facing your community. Please be aware that we represent HOAs only – we do not represent homeowners in disputes against their HOAs. We appreciate your reading our HOA law blog and encourage you to share it with others who may be interested. Thank you!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Video: Pool Rules - How to Do it Right

Pool season is here! Watch this short video with  Moretz & Skufca HOA Ninja Chris Gelwicks and Key Community Management's Cyndi Sullivan for all you need to know about instituting proper rules and regulations for your homeowners association's or condominium's pool: Pool Rules: What You Need to Know

Saturday, February 25, 2017

How to Handle HOA/Condo Board Member Resignations

By Chris Gelwicks, Esq.

From time to time we receive questions regarding the resignation of directors, term expiration and what to do in the event of a mass resignation by the existing board.  The North Carolina Planning Community Act, Condominium Act, and the Non-Profit Corporation Act address certain issues with regard to directors’ terms and how to fill vacancies.  Generally, the remaining board members appoint a replacement to serve out a resigning director’s term. But what happens when directors resign and do not appoint their successors, or when there are not enough remaining directors left to appoint replacements? 

Section 55A-08-05(d) of the North Carolina Non-Profit Corporations Act provides that when the term of a director expires, that director continues to serve until his or her successor is appointed or elected and takes office.  This seems to be in contrast with Section 55A-08-07 which indicates that a director’s resignation is effective upon communication of that resignation to the board (unless the resignation sets forth another effective date).  The key difference between the two statutes are the terms “expire” and “resign”.  Normally, in either case, the remaining directors would appoint someone to fill the empty seat unless the bylaws indicate differently. The board could also choose to hold an election for the empty seat(s).

Where we run into problems is where an entire board resigns at once and no successors are appointed.  Pursuant to Section 55A-08-30, directors on boards have a duty to act in good faith, with reasonable care, and in a manner that is in the best interest of the association.  Such fiduciary duties include that directors enforce the declaration of covenants, collect assessments, and ensure that the association is run and continues to be run effectively.  It is a reasonable conclusion that if an entire board resigns at once and appoints no successors to fill vacancies, then the association cannot be effectively run.  Those directors who resigned en masse potentially subject themselves to liability by not finding and appointing replacements; those directors, by basically abandoning their posts, could be construed to have violated their fiduciary duties.

The same could also apply if so many directors resign that the board can no longer reach a quorum to make a decision on appointing replacement directors.  Keep in mind that the bylaws of your homeowners association ultimately control and can provide a different procedure than these North Carolina state statutes.  If you are reading this and are on the board of your association, you may wish to review your bylaws to determine what they say in these situations and whether changes might be necessary to provide better procedures, such as stating that even board members who resign also continue to serve until their successors take office.

The bottom line is this: Resignations, vacancies and the like are not to be taken lightly.  Directors who resign should always find a successor if at all possible and submit those names to the remaining board members.  If an entire board intends to resign – which is an extremely bad idea to begin with and should be avoided at all costs – they should do so in a manner that allows successors to be appointed and the association to continue to function.  For example, the resignations may be staged over time to allow replacements to come aboard.  And remember that, at least in North Carolina, board members whose terms expire continue to serve, and continue to have fiduciary duties to the association and the members, until their replacements take office.

Failure to appoint successors in a way that results in a dysfunctional board can result in personal liability to the resigning directors for breach of fiduciary duty.  As always, don’t hesitate to contact us to discuss strategies, procedures and potential liabilities when dealing with board matters.

Click here for another of our blog posts regarding board of directors matters.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

The immigration ban case - a primer for nonlawyers

I read the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion on the immigration ban and thought it might be helpful to provide a little background for those of you who are not lawyers or haven't read it. This is an explanation as of February 11, 2017; if you're reading this much after that date, then the case has probably proceeded along since then and this explanation may no longer be as helpful. This is not a political post, just explaining where the case is right now. Bottom line, the substantive issues involved have not even been heard by the trial court yet – all that has happened so far is that the trial court and the court of appeals imposed a stay on enforcing the immigration ban until the substantive legal issues can be fully argued at the trial court level.  The Court of Appeals opinion is easily found online should you wish to read it yourself, although it will be a bit of a slog for nonlawyers.

The lawsuit filed by the states to try to stop the immigration ban has not been heard by the Federal District Court. All the District Court has done so far is to place an injunction on the enforcement of the ban until a full trial is held on the legality of the ban. To grant the injunction, the District Court had to make the threshold determination that irreparable harm would occur if the executive orders were allowed to go forward prior to a full trial, and that the states challenging the ban are more likely than not to win their challenge at the full trial. Again, no hearing or trial has actually been held yet on the substantive issues involved.

The Trump administration appealed the injunction, arguing that the executive order should remain in place and be enforceable pending the full trial. Remember, all an appeals court does is review what the trial court did and determine if there was a proper legal basis for the trial court's determination. An appeals court does not re-hear the factual issues in the case or make any factual determinations. In fact, an appeals court does not hear testimony or really weigh evidence at all, it only looks at what was done at the trial court below and listens to the arguments of the attorneys as to whether or not what the trial court did was proper. The appeals court generally defers to the factual determinations of the trial court since the trial court judge actually heard all the evidence and testimony and the appeals court does not.

In this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at the injunction put in place by the trial court and declined to reverse the trial court's conclusion that an injunction was proper in this case until a full trial on the substantive issues could be held.

I cannot take great offense at these rulings and they are not out of the mainstream with regard to how court cases generally proceed. The trial court basically said that there is no great emergency requiring the immigration ban to take effect immediately and that it made sense to keep the status quo as it existed prior to the ban until the legality of the ban can be fully determined. Personally I believe there are parts of the ban that are perfectly enforceable and there are parts of it that obviously are not.  I would have preferred for the trial court to have enjoined the parts that were not enforceable and to let the other parts proceed, but it chose not to do that and the Court of Appeals really does not have the authority to delve into that level of detail at this point in the case. The case will proceed at the District Court level presumably and I believe ultimately parts of the ban will be upheld and parts of it will not be. But I think it is important to understand that the substantive legal issues have not even been fully heard at this point. I hope this explanation was helpful.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Failure to Hold Formal Board Votes Dooms Two Charlotte HOAs

Empty meeting table
An unused meeting table does not do your HOA much good.
There are times in the practice of homeowners’ association law when courts make rulings with which we as attorneys disagree but where an underlying principle or best practice is affirmed.  A prime example is the N.C. Court of Appeals’ opinion of November 1, 2016 in the case of Willowmere Community Association Inc. and Nottingham Owner’s Association Inc. v. City of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership. As is generally the case whenever an HOA case reaches the North Carolina appellate courts, the HOAs lost.

The two associations filed suit to challenge the rezoning of land that was approved for the development of moderate-income multifamily housing adjacent to their single-family subdivisions.However, the Mecklenburg County Superior Court never reached the merits of the challenge, instead ruling that the HOAs did not have legal standing to bring the challenge at all.  It stated that the associations “did not have standing to bring the action because they failed to follow the requirements in their respective bylaws with regard to their decisions to initiate this litigation.”

Without “standing”, generally regarded as the plaintiff’s having suffered sufficient individualized harm from the actions of the defendant, the court system does not have jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s plea at all.  Standing is designed to ensure that cases are grounded in actual, specific disputes and deter the filing of cases based upon theoretical or conjectural wrongs. Since lack of standing “bars the door to the courthouse” for the plaintiff and can prevent valid legal claims from being adjudicated, courts typically use great care in throwing a case out due to lack of standing. 

In this case, the N.C. Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court, focusing on the failure of the two HOAs’ boards of directors to follow proper procedures in making the decision to sue. Both boards had determined to sue via email or telephone discussions, without formal board meetings or even written and signed consents to action without a meeting by the board members. 

Willowmere HOA argued that its board unanimously authorized the lawsuit through a chain of emails, and that this satisfied the N.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act which allows a board to take action without a meeting through “unanimous consent”, but the Court ruled that even if this were true, the Willowmere bylaws also required “an explanation of the action taken to be posted at a prominent place within the Common Area within three (3) days after the written consents of all the Board members have been obtained.”  Unfortunately for Willowmere, there was no evidence showing that an explanation of the action was posted in the Common Area. 

The Nottingham HOA board did not call a formal board meeting to discuss filing a lawsuit and did not act via unanimous written consent.  Rather, a few of the board members conducted a telephone conversation with the management company and did not refer to the basic requirements of the bylaws regarding the power to initiate a lawsuit.  They did not deliberate and make a decision in a formal meeting or unanimously in writing.

The Superior Court judge inquired into the standing issue on his own motion – neither of the defendants had argued that the HOAs lacked standing to bring the challenge.  But North and South Carolina courts are generally disposed to rule against HOAs, and in this case the failure to follow the basic requirements in the bylaws and statutes for conducting business gave the Superior Court all the ammunition it needed to find that neither association had standing to bring the lawsuit, and the Court of Appeals agreed. 

We question the judges’ reasoning on the standing issue. It would appear that the HOAs could have suffered significant and specific damages had an improper rezoning been approved adjacent to them, which should have been enough to confer standing.  A failure to follow corporate formalities would typically be something for which an association member could sue or take other action to attempt to rescind the decision, but it has not to our knowledge prior to this case been used to actually deny an association its right to be heard in a court of law.

Whether or not a non-HOA member may challenge standing based on the internal procedures of the HOA since the non-member is not subject to those procedures, we can agree that an HOA member may make such challenge to board action if the board does not follow the proper procedures, so certainly the HOA boards here were at fault to some extent. 

Bottom line:  Don’t get in a hurry when making decisions. HOA boards must follow the requirements of both the governing documents and the statutes when taking action, and avoid taking action by email in any significant matter.  Remember, in general, actions taken without a meeting, like via email, must be unanimous.  (Meetings can be held over the phone provided all board members can clearly hear one another.)  Calling a meeting is almost always the best option for making decisions concerning serious matters.  The use of the unanimous written consent procedure is a useful tool if a board is simply unable to meet, but boards should take great care in preserving the emails documenting the unanimous agreement.  We also recommend that, at the next board meeting following a decision made without a meeting, all items approved via unanimous written consent be formally ratified with such ratification reflected in the written minutes or via formal written resolution.  Finally, adherence to additional procedures such as the posting of an explanation, as with Willowmere, is required to ensure that the action will withstand a subsequent challenge on procedural grounds.

While it may sometimes be a pain to follow these procedures, a cavalier attitude can come back to bite your board.  In this case, years of litigation and many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, not to mention the opportunity to challenge an unwanted development next door, were wasted due to the failure to follow simple procedural steps. Don’t let that happen to your HOA.

Please give us a call or drop us an email if our HOA law team can assist your HOA or management company with your corporate procedures, or if we can be of assistance in any other way regarding legal issues facing your community. Please be aware that we represent HOAs only – we do not represent homeowners in disputes against their HOAs. We appreciate your reading our HOA law blog and encourage you to share it with others who may be interested. Thank you!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Maximizing Votes at an HOA Meeting or Election

Since many HOAs conduct their annual and/or budget meetings this time of year, we are reprinting this post from 2014 about maximizing attendance at your HOA meetings.

Many HOAs and condominium associations have annual meetings coming up this time of year, or special meetings to amend their covenants, conditions and restrictions ("CCRs") or bylaws. What is the best way to collect the votes your HOA needs to elect a board or get that important change to the CCRs or bylaws passed?

1. Have you fostered a sense of community in your HOA? Consider a barbecue, pot-luck luncheon or kids' movie night at or before your meeting. Not only does this remind people that there are good people in the neighborhood and that it is fun to get to know your neighbors, but it also reinforces that the HOA is not just there to demand payment of dues and that you put your trash can away. A social event says, "Our HOA is made up of hard-working, well-meaning people who are trying to support the neighborhood - don't you want to get involved as well?" And if I learned anything in law school, it's that the presence of food is guaranteed to double the turnout of any meeting.

2. Schedule the meeting well in advance and at a day, time and location that is convenient to homeowners. This may go without saying, but board members are often retired or self-employed, and therefore may have more flexible schedules than other homeowners. Give some thought to making the meeting convenient and accessible to those with less-flexible schedules. You may even wish to provide child care if your neighborhood is one with many small children.

3. We advocate sending out a meeting notice by mail which includes a proxy. While you should always hold an actual meeting for elections and whenever an amendment to the CCRs is proposed, you can gather a lot of votes ahead of time by using the proxy process. Many HOAs already use proxies, which are simply limited powers of attorney allowing a person attending a meeting to cast votes on behalf of others who are unable to attend. All proxies should be in writing, signed, include the printed name and address or lot number of the homeowner granting the proxy, and state a date by which the proxy expires. These should be collected by the Secretary at the meeting and carefully counted and tracked. (We recommend having at least three people, at least one of whom is not a board member, counting votes at any annual or special meeting.) By law, a proxy can be given to any person, even a non-member of the HOA. While it is wiser to limit only HOA members to serving as proxies, most HOA's CCRs and bylaws do not do so. 

4. The North Carolina Non-Profit Corporations Act specifically allows voting by written ballot as well "unless prohibited or limited by the articles of incorporation or bylaws" (most don't). If no meeting is necessary, consider conducting the vote via written ballot instead. All members receive a ballot with clear instructions as to what they are voting on and a specific date by which all ballots must be returned. All ballots should require a signature or other means of verifying that the response is genuine and unique, and should include the printed name and address or lot number of the homeowner. All homeowners must receive a ballot and the opportunity to vote. Some HOAs even provide the ballot  on a postage-paid postcard or include a postage-paid return envelope to help make sure they get back to the HOA in time to be counted. You may also consider organizing block captains to go door-to-door to collect ballots and/or proxies for big votes.

Good luck with your upcoming membership meetings!

Please give us a call or drop us an email if our HOA law team can assist your HOA or management company with meetings, amendments to your HOA’s governing documents, or if we can be of assistance in any other way regarding legal issues facing your community. Please be aware that we represent HOAs only – we do not represent homeowners in disputes against their HOAs. We appreciate your reading our HOA law blog and encourage you to share it with others who may be interested. Thank you!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The North Carolina Court of Appeals Says… Not Much in its Recent HOA Cases

As homeowners’ association and commercial real estate attorneys, we typically hold our breath when the North Carolina Court of Appeals issues new opinions (“opinions” is the term it uses to refer to its case decisions). While the judges are all smart, accomplished and well-meaning former attorneys, most are former litigators who unfortunately have little if any real estate or community association law experience.

For this reason, they seem to miss the point or simply get it wrong in a lot of the cases they hear involving real estate or HOA issues. In the most recent HOA cases, they have said very little, so in our mind that’s a small positive – at least they did not make something up or get something wrong altogether.

In the interest of keeping you up to date, and because there are still some "teachable moments" involved, we’ll review them anyway. The cases are Radcliffe v. Avenel Homeowners Association, Inc. and Kimler v. The Crossings at Sugar Hill Property Owner’s Association, Inc. 

Radcliffe v. Avenel Homeowners Association, Inc.

The only exciting thing about the Radcliffe case is its facts. The Avenel HOA is an upscale community located in Wilmington. If you think that you have bad neighbors, then you should read the allegations of Ms. Radcliffe in this case to feel much better about your circumstances.
Entry to Avenel HOA

Allegedly, members of the HOA’s board of directors made it their personal missions in life to cause Ms. Radcliffe to move out of the neighborhood.  Not only that, but they also tried their hardest to derail her career in the local Methodist Church. According to the Court’s opinion, their alleged reign of terror included threatening her, chasing her, assaulting her, and driving their cars at her. Her lawsuit was a textbook case for the legal cause of action known as “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress,” which involves a victim being subject to actions that no person living in a civilized society should have to endure.

The legal issue in the case affecting HOAs was whether the HOA corporation could be liable on these claims, or whether they were only the responsibility of the individual defendants and board members who performed these acts. Could their individual misdeeds be ascribed to the HOA?

The Court ruled that Ms. Radcliffe’s causes of action against the HOA were barred by the three-year statute of limitations applicable to these types of claims, and for that reason the Court did not explore the extent to which the individual defendants’ egregious actions were attributable to the HOA corporation, which actually would have been interesting had the Court gotten to it.

To what extent an HOA is responsible for the actions of board members is interesting legally because, generally, a company is liable for the actions of its employees and officers which are made in the course and scope of their duties. And in the case of an HOA, the HOA’s insurance will usually come in and defend a case brought against the HOA and/or its officers. But certain types of egregious actions, like fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or overtly criminal acts, are typically held to be outside the course and scope of an officer’s or employee’s duties, since they are not usually part of the job description. Therefore, those types of actions usually are not ascribed to the HOA itself, the HOA would not be liable for them, and the HOA’s insurance often will not step in to defend the HOA or the individuals at fault. But the HOA could be responsible if it is found to have permitted, encouraged or facilitated such bad behavior.

Bottom line: Unless you want to find out exactly which bad actions your HOA can be held legally responsible for, and to do so potentially on your own dime with no insurance coverage, try to be nice to the members of your HOA, and don’t let board members treat members disrespectfully. Unpredictable, irresponsible or offensive people should not serve on an HOA board or committee.

Kimler v. The Crossings at Sugar Hill Property Owner’s Association, Inc.

The Kimler case dealt with the issue of amendments to a community’s declaration of covenants, conditions and restrictions. The original CCRs here were filed in 1996 and they did not include a provision that allowed the documents to be amended by anyone but the declarant. Since the HOA was created prior to the Planned Community Act (which became effective January 1, 1999), the question arose as to how the CCRs could be amended by the members.

The most intriguing thing about this case is the fact that it made it all the way to the Court of Appeals in the first place, because all of the questions that it presented can be answered by reading the statutes. Section1-102 of the Planned Community Act states that certain provisions of it apply to all HOAs, even communities that were created prior to 1999. One of these provisions is Section 2-117, which allows declarations to be amended by a vote of 67% or more of the lot owners in the community, “unless the Declaration or the Articles of Incorporation expressly provide otherwise.” 

The Court ruled that because The Crossings at Sugar Hill’s CCRs were silent altogether as to any amendment process, they did not “expressly provide otherwise”; therefore, the Planned Community Act provisions applied and the members could amend the CCRs with a 67% vote.

Bottom line: Silence in CCRs as to a particular issue will not be construed in the negative. The provisions of the Planned Community Act which specifically apply to all HOAs, even those created prior to January 1, 1999, will apply when CCRs are silent as to a particular issue.

Please give us a call or drop us an email if our HOA law team can assist your HOA or management company with interpretation of your HOA’s governing documents, or if we can be of assistance in any other way regarding legal issues facing your community. Please be aware that we represent HOAs only – we do not represent homeowners in disputes against their HOAs. We appreciate your reading our HOA law blog and encourage you to share it with others who may be interested. Thank you!