Home Ownership and Second Hand Smoke: the American Dream or a Health Nightmare?

January 20, 2012

By Curtis G. Kimble.

How far can a government or an HOA go to dictate what can and can’t be done inside of a homeowners own home? Is an owner of an attached dwelling or a condominium unit able to do whatever they want within the confines of their home as long as it’s not illegal? Is a homeowner entitled to create and distribute from their home a “Class A” carcinogenic substance, which causes cancer and respiratory diseases and disorders, among other problems and which is able to infiltrate neighboring homes?

This is a question being increasingly asked in other states where some state courts have held that smoke transferring between units is a nuisance. But others have determined that the cigarette smoke is like an odor intrusion, a condition of living in a community environment that residents simply have to put up with – a startlingly misguided mentality considering the fact that the EPA has determined that there is no acceptable level of exposure to Class A carcinogens, and considering that second hand smoke causes serious problems for children, including ear problems, middle ear disease, acute respiratory infections, wheeze illness, slowed lung growth, and more severe asthma, and that 430 American newborns die each year from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) caused by second hand smoke.

Incentives offered by the Federal Government have led cities from Austin to Boston to prohibit smoking in public housing. In 2006, a judge ruled that secondhand smoke could be a breach of “warranty of habitability” under New York law.  At least six California cities and counties have banned smoking in all condo units.

Fortunately for Utah residents who don’t appreciate dangerous and toxic chemicals being forced down their breathing passages, Utah law clearly states that smoke transferring between dwelling units is a nuisance and may be the subject of an action brought by “any person whose property is injuriously affected, or whose personal enjoyment is lessened by the nuisance” and “upon judgment, the nuisance may be enjoined or abated, and damages may be recovered.”

A nuisance under Utah law includes tobacco smoke that drifts into any residential unit a person rents, leases, or owns, from another residential or commercial unit and the smoke drifts in more than once in each of two or more consecutive seven-day periods, and is injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.

The Utah Condominium Ownership Act states that restrictions in governing documents “regarding the use of the units may include other prohibitions on, or allowance of, smoking tobacco products.”

The Utah Community Association Act, which applies to non-condo HOAs, states that a rule of an association may prohibit an activity within a dwelling if there are attached dwellings, and the activity creates the potential for smoke to enter another lot owner’s dwelling, the common areas, or limited common areas.

Utah law is at the forefront of the national trend to protect the right of every individual to live in their own homes without being subjected to dangerous and toxic chemicals contained in second hand smoke. Contact us to take advantage of these laws and help your association adopt a policy regarding smoking.

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Can a Board Use “Self Help” to Enforce the Covenants?

December 20, 2011

By Curtis G. Kimble.

How to obtain compliance when enforcing a violation of the governing documents can be one of the most vexing problems in a homeowners association.  One of the chief functions of a homeowners association is enforcement of the covenants and rules governing the community.  Even though the individual property owners ordinarily have the power to enforce the covenants, collective enforcement by the community is one of the main benefits of owning property in a common interest community.  However, every board must act reasonably in exercising enforcement powers and must pay careful attention to the law and the association governing documents.  The duty to enforce should not be confused with a requirement for maximum enforcement in all cases.

An association has the duty to use ordinary care and prudence in managing the property and financial affairs of the community, as well as the duty to act reasonably in the exercise of its discretionary powers, including rulemaking, enforcement, and design-control powers.  One aspect of these duties is the duty to avoid creating unreasonable risks of harm to property values by failure to provide for the long term protection and preservation of the property.  On the other hand, overzealous enforcement can create serious problems, including protracted litigation, divisiveness, and disaffection with the community, among other things.

Accordingly, a board must make an informed decision and exercise careful judgment in decisions regarding enforcement.  This fact was completely lost on a board in a Florida homeowners association in a case called Parton v. Palomino Lakes Property Owners Association, Inc.

The governing documents of the Florida association prohibited mobile homes.  A lot owner decided to install a modular home and attempted to have it delivered to the lot.  Three board members literally blocked the delivery of the home by blockading the entrance to the subdivision. This happened on three different occasions.

The lot owner sued the association and the board members individually and won.  The owner was awarded punitive damages of $40,000 against one board member, $50,000 against another and $60,000 against the other.  The owner was also awarded compensatory damages and their attorney fees.

Sometimes “self-help” by the board (correcting a violation directly) is allowed by an association’s governing documents.  For instance, it’s possible that a board may be able to have a professional come in and remove the three feet tall weeds on a lot and charge the cost back to the lot owner.

But how far is a board allowed to go?  Can a board prevent a non-compliant or delinquent homeowner from access to and from the owner’s lot or unit?  Generally, the answer is absolutely not and the failure of this Florida board to make an informed decision and exercise careful judgment before they acted had drastic consequences.  Such extreme personal liability could have been easily avoided if the board had consulted with a qualified attorney beforehand.


A Utah HOA Faces $96,000 in Fines in a Pet Policy/Companion Animal Clash

October 28, 2011

By Curtis G. Kimble

A Utah condominium HOA, its property management company and an individual property manager are facing $96,000 in penalties, plus other amounts, as a result of multiple charges of discrimination brought by the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  HUD is alleging that the HOA and property manager violated the federal Fair Housing Act by refusing to accommodate a resident who required an emotional support dog because of a disability and that they assessed illegal fees and fines against the resident for the presence of the assistance animal.

HUD is charging the association for violating the Act when the association required the resident to pay a “pet registration fee,” provide proof of liability coverage, sign a medical release for the board to obtain his confidential medical records, and when the association levied fines for failure to pay the pet registration fee.  The resident provided medical documentation of his need for the assistance animal and obtained liability insurance, but refused to give the HOA board access to his private medical information or to pay the $150 pet registration fee. Even after it acknowledged that the resident’s dog was a medically necessary assistance animal, the association continued to demand that he pay the fee.

This association and property manager did use an attorney during the events above, which just goes to show how important it is that an association use an attorney that can truly advise the board and not just act as a blunt instrument of enforcement.  In this case, there was little wisdom in pursuing a $150 fee at the risk of incurring $100,000 in fines, especially when the $150 was for a “pet registration fee” and, as we’ve explained in the past on this blog, assistance animals are not considered “pets.”

The Fair Housing Act requires HOAs to make reasonable accommodations to no-pet rules for residents with disabilities who need companion or assistance animals.  Don’t risk hefty fines and penalties, contact us for assistance whenever your association faces this tricky and complex issue.

UPDATE: The Justice Department announced a $20,000 consent decree and settled this case.  See the announcement here.


Making Effective HOA Board Decisions

September 19, 2011

Is your board being pulled in many different directions by competing needs and demands?  They key is determining where the board’s focus is most needed and deserved.  A nine-step process was developed by two community managers to help condo and HOA boards make effective decisions.  It can be found in this article (link) and it is a great process from a practical point of view, but since this is a legal blog, I’ll go ahead and give a legal take on the first step of the process.

The first step is to determine whether the immediate issue is really a problem that the association needs to be involved with in the first place.  The board will need to examine the issue and the facts, make inquiries if necessary, review their authority (remember, a homeowners association only has the authority to act given by law or its governing documents) and review their obligations (remember your fiduciary duties and the obligations imposed by the law and the governing documents).

There are many instances where deciding to do nothing at all is a valid, and sometimes the best, decision because of any of a variety of reasons.  While a board has a duty to use ordinary care to manage the property and financial affairs of the community, if a board conducts a reasonable inquiry, considers the relevant factors, and makes an informed decision in what they believe to be the best interests of the association, then even deciding to take no action at all can be a proper decision.

Let’s look at two hypothetical instances where a board failed to act:

1.     The governing documents of the Oceanview Condominium Association provide that the association and any unit owner may enforce the covenants.  Owner A complains to the board that Owner B constantly plays his music too loud, yet other adjacent unit owners are questioned and none of them have noticed such a problem, and when talking with Owner A and Owner B, it is clear there is a long history between the two.  The board decides to take no further action.

Alleged violations are often brought to a board’s attention through a complaining resident effectively seeking to have the board intercede in what is, in realty, a personal dispute between the complainer and another resident.  In such cases, a board, rather than becoming a tool of the disgruntled resident, should refrain from involving the HOA in the issue.

2.  Five members of the Oceanview Condominium Association fail to pay assessments for common expenses.  The board does not take action to enforce their obligation to pay assessments.

In the absence of other facts or circumstances, the conclusion would be justified that the board has breached its duty to use ordinary care and prudence in managing the financial affairs of the association.

The decision not to take any action is still a decision nonetheless and as such it should be noted in the minutes of a board meeting.  I recommend also including a brief statement of the inquiry, factors and/or analysis undertaken by the board in reaching its decision.  Such a step can help the board in the future in ways too numerous to explain here.

The range of power a board holds over its community’s well being and the range of decisions a board is called on to make can be significant.  Every board should have a process for making effective, well-considered and well-documented decisions.

Curtis G. Kimble


Citizen’s Arrest and HOA Rules?

September 8, 2011

Crazy celebrity antics crack me up, but there’s nothing funny about the possible consequences of carrying out a “citizen’s arrest.”

In this story (link), Farmer Ted from Sixteen Candles was being a real nuisance, pounding on doors, tearing up plants and annoying his condominium unit neighbors to the point that one of them put him under “citizen’s arrest” and the police were called.

Utah authorizes a private person to arrest someone for public offenses committed in his or her presence:

Utah Code § 77-7-3.   By private persons.
A private person may arrest another:
(1) For a public offense committed or attempted in his presence; or
(2) When a felony has been committed and he has reasonable cause to believe the person arrested has committed it.

While Utah law specifically allows for citizen’s arrest, I don’t think many law enforcement officers, and certainly no attorneys, would recommend it.  There is a huge potential for such a situation to go all too wrong.  Besides the obvious risks to personal safety, a person exercising citizen’s arrest would open themselves up to claims of false imprisonment, assault, battery, slander, and on and on.

I hardly need to say it, but if a resident is violating the nuisance prohibitions of the CC&Rs in a manner that is also against the law, I do not recommend that HOA boards and property managers add citizen’s arrest to their list of enforcement options.

Curtis G. Kimble


Don’t be a Hater! Or Your Peeps Will Accuse the Board of Selective Enforcement

July 22, 2011

As illustrated in this comical but true story: “Chris Brown on Condo Complaints: I’m Being Setup by Haters!” it’s vitally important that an association’s governing documents are in order and that they clearly outline the rights of each owner, including rights to parking spaces.  If parking spaces must be used as handicap spaces at some point due to a Fair Housing request, ensure that the whole process is done legally and properly under the governing documents and the law.  Consult professionals as needed, especially an attorney in the case of a Fair Housing request for reasonable accommodation.

The story in that link above also brings to mind the importance of clear and specific enforcement provisions in the governing documents.  If someone scratches their initials in the elevator, can you fine them?  What about excessive noise or other vandalism?

Perhaps most importantly, this story shows the importance of treating members equally and fairly.  In HOAs, the stakes are high.  Financially, the home is a major investment.  Psychologically, it may be even more important as a safe haven and source of security.  On the other hand, living in an HOA requires some sacrifices of individual freedom for the communal good.  The sacrifices must be fairly shared, however.  Unequal treatment of members who are similarly situated will lead to issues more serious than being called a hater.  The number one problem we see is when personality issues are the impetus behind an enforcement issue, rather than the goal of equal, consistent and uniform enforcement.  Contact us for guidance in any enforcement situation where determining what is fair is causing or may cause difficulty.

Curtis G. Kimble


Assistance and Service Animal Update

May 6, 2011

To my displeasure, I have found that more and more frequently, a common “counterclaim” to an Association’s enforcement actions (regardless of what the Association is enforcing) is an allegation that the Board has violated the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”).  This blog entry deals with Assistance and Service Animals and recent meetings I have had personally with the Utah Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division on the topic (the “UALD”).

 Please remember, that each case is fact specific and this blog entry is for general information only and should only serve as to alert you as to issues to consider.

 People with disabilities are afforded certain federal and state housing privileges to help them cope and deal with their disabilities.  I think we all can agree that this is a fair, moral and good legal concept.  One of the accommodations that MUST be made is a reasonable accommodation for a service or companion animals, but only if strict conditions and requirements are met.  Owners do not have a unfettered right to have an assistance or service animal.

 First and foremost, “service animals” will not be the topic of the Article.  I do not think anyone would disagree that a visually or hearing impaired individual should not have access to a service animal to help them overcome and live better with their challenges.

 However, the issue becomes much more complicated when a request from an owner is made for an “assistance animal” based on a medical condition that may not be as apparent.  This issues often arises in ‘no pet’ communities.

 If you take anything from this Article it should be that a properly permitted assistance animal is NOT deemed a pet in the eyes of the law.  A rough analogy would be such an animal is just as crucial as a wheelchair.  Thus, your pet policies do not apply.

 I am sure you are wondering what entitles someone to have an “assistance animal” in the first place.  First, they must have a disability which limits a major life function.  This can, and in some cases should, be question.  But be careful as to how you go about finding this out.  As described below, it is a health care provider’s job to make this determination – not the Board’s.  Second, a licensed health care provider must provide a “link” between the disability and the animal that is being requested as an assistance animal.

 Most Associations require their members to have their doctor fill out a form that evidences both a disability and certifies that the animal will be of a therapeutic and helpful nature.  To be very concise, if the health care provider certifies this to be true, then the Association really does not have grounds to question the certification.

 If the Association is presented with the doctor’s note; a prescription form; etc; you do have the right to follow up with the issuing health care provider to make sure it came from them and is legitimate but that is about as far as you are allowed to inquire.

 You have no right to inquire about the nature of the disability and your forms and/or questions should not go down that path.

 You are likely asking yourself “what does John mean by a health care provider?”  A physician’s assistant and nurse, etc., will likely qualify as such.  I have tried to argue in the past that the doctor or health care provider must have some training with respect to whatever type of a disability is being alleged.

 For example, I have personally not agreed with an “ear, nose and throat” doctor giving a prescription for an assistance animal for an emotional condition.  However, I have been told (and we will update this blog as more information develops) that it is the doctor or health care provider who puts their name on the line if they certify something that they cannot diagnose properly.

 Therefore, you are allowed verify that the “note” came from a certain person and that this person is a trained health care professional.  But, in most instances, your scrutiny will stop there.  (There will always be exceptions and issues on this topic – but for now – please use this information as your default mindset.  Another question arises – can a chiropractor prescribe an assistance animal?  More to come).

If you make a request upon your owners for a health care provider’s certification, and you do not get it back within a reasonable time, you do not need to make the accommodation until such note is received.

 If someone wants or has “2” cats, the health care provider must prove a need for 2 cats.

 Further, just because an owner had approval for a prior pet, does not mean that that approval extends to the “next pet.”  For example, if a pet dies or is lost, the owner must make a request again.  Remember, this analysis is all about the current pet being the appropriate pet for the particular challenge of the owner.

 You can ask for a medical opinion about the breed or type of animal and whether or not it truly provides a medical benefit over other breeds or types of animals.  However, be careful.  If someone has a “scary dog” that simply does not mean it cannot be an assistance animal. The key consideration is not the breed, but whether it (1) stays under control; (2) stays on a leash; (3) does not physically attack or threaten other owners; (4) does not unreasonably bark or make noise or (5) cause damage to the common areas, etc., that you cannot reasonably remedy.

 Unless a City Ordinance disallows a certain type of breed of dog or other animal you probably cannot challenge the breed unless it shows violent tendencies or is inherently dangerous. In such cases, I believe the Anti-Discrimination Division will defer to the City and PERHAPS allow you to ban that particular type of animal.

 Questions arise about exotic pets – snakes, etc.  This will be discussed in a follow up entry.

Remember, the accommodation that you must give is not unlimited – the owner must be given a reasonable accommodation.  Not all requests will be reasonable.

If you start on a path of enforcing a pet policy, make sure that it is uniform and consistent amongst all owners with the above considerations for assistance animals.  You should accept both verbal and written complaints from other owners who complain about pets in the community and then do your due diligence to make sure the pet is properly in the community pursuant to the law discussed above and your policies.  Please keep a file on each approved assistance animal.

This topic is a complicated one and this blog entry cannot do it full justice.  Please contact us before engaging in any pet enforcement program or if you simply have assistance and service animal related questions.  As stated above, more to come on pets AND Fair Housing Rules related to swimming pools; weight rooms; etc.

Best regards, John Richards


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