A Big Victory for the Little Guy!

The Arizona Court of Appeals recently imposed significant restrictions on homeowners' associations' rights to impose fines and penalties against homeowners. In Turtle Rock III Homeowners Association v. Fisher, 243 Ariz. 294, 406 P.3d 824 (October 26, 2017), Division One of the Arizona Court of Appeals held that homeowners associations are prohibited  from imposing and collecting fines or penalties if the HOA did not have a valid, published written fine penalty policy. The absence of such a policy was per se unreasonable and, as such, the fines were unenforceable.

Arizona law generally allows HOAs to charge reasonable monetary penalties. See, e.g., A.R.S. § 33-1803(B). However, the Court held in a previous case that it was unreasonable to impose late fees based on a retroactively adopted fee schedule. In Turtle Rock III, the Court of Appeals considered whether daily or weekly fines were reasonable or "akin to a punitive damages award." The Turtle Rock homeowner faced "escalating monetary penalties for her failure to cure" certain maintenance violations. 

The Turtle Rock III court rejected the fines on several grounds. First, it held that "[a]d hoc fines," that is fines that are imposed seemingly out of thin air, "are per se unreasonable." This is true "even where the HOA has the authority to levy fines." In addition, any fines must be promulgated pursuant to a prior published schedule of fines. In other words, secret fine policies are just as prohibited as no fine policies at all. The absence of a fine policy in the Turtle Rock case was a significant factor in the Court of Appeals' ruling for the homeowner. "The trial court did not make a finding that a promulgated fee schedule existed."

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the Court of Appeals held that it was the Association's burden to prove that the fines imposed were reasonable. In Turtle Rock, the fees were $25.00 per day. The homeowner "was not required to present evidence controverting the existence of the fee schedule." That burden fell squarely on the Association suing to collect the fines. The Court of Appeals held that there was "no support in the record for a determination that a fine of $25 per day, for any violation, is reasonable. A stipulated damages provision made in advance of a breach is a penalty, and is generally unenforceable." 

The Court's central holding is worth repeating: 

Although the HOA had the authority under state statutes and the CC&Rs to promulgate a fine schedule for monetary penalties, there is no competent evidence in the record before us that it did so. Without competent evidence of a fee schedule timely promulgated demonstrating the fine amounts and the appropriateness of such amounts, monetary penalties are per se unreasonable. Even if a fee schedule existed, the HOA had the burden to prove its damages. Given our resolution of this matter, we need not address Fisher's due process claim related to the required thirty day notice of a penalty. The trial court's award of monetary penalties is reversed and the attorneys' fees award below is reversed.

The last part of this ruling will continue to resonate: "Even if a fee schedule existed, the HOA had the burden to prove its damages." While an HOA may have the right to impose fees or penalties for CC&R violations, Turtle Rock suggests that any such fines, in addition to being set forth in a published fine policy, must relate to some damage that the HOA might suffer. 

Most HOAs that have fine policies charge a minimum of $25.00 for an initial violation. These fines often escalate quickly. $25.00 becomes $50.00, which becomes $100.00, and so on. But if these fines bear no relation to any actual damages that an HOA actually suffers, it raises serious questions whether the HOA can even enforce such fines in the first place.

Have you been fined? Did you pay the fines or are you contesting them? 

CALL US TODAY TO DISCUSS YOU LEGAL RIGHTS.

Second Mortgages and Lines of Credit

Arizona law prohibits a lender from filing a lawsuit to collect on a home loan where the loan represents “purchase money,” that is, money used to purchase the property. This includes purchase money loans that are technically denominated as “home equity lines of credit” taken out at the time of the original purchase of the home. It also includes first, second, and even third mortgages where the money was borrowed as part of the purchase of the property.

Consider the following illustration: You buy a $300,000.00 house. It is structured as two loans in what is common called an “80-20” transaction, meaning that the first loan is 80% of the purchase price, or $240,000.00, and the second loan is 20% of the purchase price, or $60,000. Because both of these loans are considered purchase money loans, the lenders cannot sue the borrower to recover the money in the event the borrower defaults. This is true even if the borrower has refinanced the original loan to get a better interest rate or other terms (note: the same may not be true, however, if the borrower has refinanced in order to withdraw some equity). This is also true even if the lender calls the second loan a “home equity line of credit.”

A common scenario in today’s real estate market is that the first mortgage forecloses. Ordinarily, this leaves the second lender without any remedy because they cannot file a lawsuit seeking to recover the difference. A number of lenders, however, are either unaware of, or deliberately ignoring, this prohibition by filing improper lawsuits. In many cases, the original loan has been sold to a different bank and the new bank fails to do its due diligence to determine whether the loan is a purchase money loan before filing a lawsuit. Because borrowers are unaware of the rules, in many cases they do nothing and let the lenders obtain substantial default judgments against them. Judgments to which the lenders otherwise would not be entitled except the borrower has forfeited his or her right to defend the lawsuit! In many cases, you may be entitled to recover your attorneys’ fees and costs if you are forced to defend such a lawsuit.

Don’t become a victim of predatory collection practices on the part of unscrupulous or unknowledgeable banks. If a bank has sued you on a second loan, we strongly advise you to consult with a lawyer to determine your legal rights. Contact the lawyers at the Dessaules Law Group today at 602-274-5400 to schedule a consultation.

What happens after the bankruptcy discharge: An emerging (and disturbing) trend in foreclosure, bankruptcy, and HOA law

The prevalence of foreclosures in the real estate market has had several unexpected repercussions to distressed homeowners who have made the decision to walk-away from their home.  Banks appear to be unable, incapable, or unwilling to handle the volume of foreclosures, so a distressed homeowner may continue to own his or her home for months, and occasionally even years, after receiving a Notice of Trustee’s Sale (rather than the 90-days stated in the Notice).

Because you are legally responsible for payment of assessments until you are no longer the owner, it is important that you continue to pay your HOA assessments until you have received confirmation that there is a new owner (most commonly in the form of a Trustee’s Deed Upon Sale).  Many people who make the mistake of thinking that they can simply return the keys to the bank or that the Notice of Trustee’s Sale means they no longer own the property get a rude awakening after a few months: A hefty bill for unpaid assessments from the HOA that in all likelihood includes collection costs such as attorneys’ fees.  The HOA also may file a lawsuit to collect those assessments.  Because such collection actions almost always increase the amount you are obligated to pay, it is important to make sure that you continue to pay your assessments until the trustee’s sale is completed.

Many distressed homeowners are turning to bankruptcy as a solution, logically thinking that it simultaneously eliminates their personal obligation to pay HOA assessments and creates the vehicle for walking away from their home.  Ordinarily, the bank will seek, and obtain, permission from the bankruptcy court to conduct the trustee’s sale and notice the trustee’s sale.  Then, the homeowner is discharged from bankruptcy and is able to start fresh without being weighed down by the debts.  At least this is how it is supposed to happen.

But what happens if the bank postpones that trustee’s sale or, as we are commonly seeing, simply cancels it for whatever reason.  One possible reason for the bank to postpone or cancel the sale is that it has too many foreclosures and does not want to take on the added cost of HOA assessments, so it decides to hold off on the foreclosure, thus leaving you responsible for assessments.  The HOA does not care that the bank is dragging its feet, but you should—you remain obligated to the HOA until you are no longer the owner!  So while the discharge may have eliminated your personal liability for past assessments, the HOA can, and will, begin to charge you for assessments that accrue after you have been discharged from your bankruptcy.  So it is important for a distressed homeowner who has filed for bankruptcy to stay abreast of the trustee’s sale and not simply assume that the bank has followed through with its stated intention of foreclosing.

The distressed homeowner is not without possible remedies against the bank.  Call us to schedule a consultation with an attorney to discuss these possible remedies.

Can they really shut off my water?

Homeowner and condominium associations are increasingly adopting policies for shutting off water or other utilities where an owner has fallen behind in his or her assessments, owes fines or penalties for violating the governing documents, or is supposedly refusing to follow rules.  Although people who own in a homeowner association generally are obligated to pay assessments, associations commonly use these water shut-off policies in order to force members to pay assessments, fines, penalties or other charges that they may not owe.  These owners often face an unfair choice: Pay what we tell you to pay or live without water. 

What many homeowners do not know is that such policies in many cases may be unenforceable. There is no reported case in Arizona that authorizes a homeowners association to shut off water or other utilities. The determination of whether the policy is enforceable depends on several factors, including (a) an association’s governing documents, (b) Arizona’s planned community and condominium laws, (c) the history of the policy and its enforcement, and (d) whether the association is seeking to collect assessments or fines and penalties.  In many cases, the water shut off policy is not enforceable and can be successfully challenged in court.

In most cases, we find that the application of these factors provides fertile ground for challenging a shut-off policy.  While this is especially true where the association does not pay for the utility that is the subject of the shut off policy, the association does not necessarily gain the right to shut off essential services even if it pays for the utilities.

Please understand that we are not advocating you to refuse to pay assessments.  Assessments have been called the “lifeblood” of a homeowners association and an association has every right to collect assessments…provided that the assessments are valid and it does so within the law.  If you believe that assessments are invalid, we strongly encourage you to seek legal representation to learn about your rights and obligations.  We recommend you seek legal counsel before taking any action.  Although many people believe that they can simply stop paying assessments, it is our experience that this is not the wisest course of action and many people who stop paying assessments quickly regret it.

Courts cannot, and should not, condone a homeowner who has refused to pay valid assessments.  But the courts also should not condone a homeowners association that has exceeded its lawful powers and seeks to use unlawful collection tactics.  And, in many cases, the association is using the threat of water shut off to force a homeowner to pay disputed fines or penalties. 

An Association’s Governing Documents Rarely Permit the Disconnection of Water of Other Utilities.

Although many associations will argue that their governing documents (CC&Rs and Bylaws) in general provide sufficient authority for shutting off utilities, this is rarely the case. Unless an association’s CC&Rs explicitly creates the right to shut off utilities as a collections tactic, then no such right exists.   Even if the CC&R’s provide such an explicit right, that provision may be found to be unlawful.

The CC&R’s constitute a contract between the Association and the homeowners. In most cases, the governing documents spell out the rights and remedies of the association.  Rarely do these enumerated rights include the ability to shut off water or other utilities for non-payment.  Rather, they generally permit an association to commence legal action for damages or foreclosure (if applicable) and on occasion may also allow the association to suspend certain rights and privileges, such as the right to vote.  If the right to shut off water is not expressly spelled out in the CC&Rs, then it is not part of your contract with the association.

Nor can the right be inferred or implied from a general right to collect assessments or charge fines. One court addressing this question has decried this “extra-legal means of enforcement,” holding that the association in that case lacked the legal right to shut off a homeowner’s water.  See Western v. Chardonnay Village Condominium Ass’n, 519 So.2d 243 (1988).  In general, the absence of express language authorizing utility shut off, and the inclusion of specific language spelling out the methods for collection of unpaid assessments, as if often the case, defeats any argument that such an implied right exists.

The association’s CC&R’s generally do not give it the right to employ collection tactics such as shutting off water, disconnecting utilities, or prohibiting parking any more than the association could threaten to change the locks on your house or condominium.  And an association does not have the right to change the locks on your house or condominium.

Arizona Law Does Not Permit the Disconnection of Utilities.

Arizona law also does not authorize the disconnection of water or other utilities.  Arizona’s statutes governing condominiums and planned communities generally restrict exclusive an association’s remedy for non-payment of assessments to commencement of a civil action for damages and/or foreclosure of its lien (where applicable).  Nothing in Arizona’s Planned Communities Act or Condominium Act allows an association to disconnect these essential services any more than it could change the locks on your home.  Simply put, an association does not have the authority under Arizona law to deny water or other utilities as a means of collecting for past due assessments or penalties.

Arizona courts have analogized homeowners associations to landlords in many respects.  See Martinez v. Woodmar IV Condominiums Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 189 Ariz. 206, 941 P.2d 218 (1997).  A homeowners association has no greater right to shut off water or other utilities than a landlord.  And a landlord generally cannot shut off essential utilities in Arizona—even where the landlord pays for those utilities—as a means of compelling payment of rent.  See A.R.S. § 33-1364.  Thus, the fact that the homeowners association might pay the utility bill as a common expense does not necessarily create the right to shut off that utility to a non-paying homeowner.

The disconnection of essential services also arguably raises serious due process concerns.  The Condominium Act and Planned Community Act both require commencement of legal process in order to collect past due assessments or fines.  Where an association has received a specific grant of power under statute, a collection policy that circumvents the legal process provided, and avoids the judicial oversight inherent in the legal means set forth in the statute, offends basic concepts of due process.

The History and Application of the Policy Is a Crucial Question.

Even if state laws and an association’s governing documents permit shutting off utilities, one should examine the history of the policy and how it is being enforced.  Consider the following questions:  Was the policy adopted in a properly noticed, open meeting? Was the policy communicated to the homeowners?  Is the policy uniformly enforced? Unless you can answer, “yes,” to each of these questions, the homeowner may have valid grounds for challenging the policy.

Policies that are discussed and adopted in closed, private meetings by a select handful of homeowners subvert Arizona’s open meeting statutes (A.R.S. §§ 33-1248 and 33-1804), and are invalid and unenforceable. Although the open meeting statutes do not explicitly spell out the remedies for their violation, the statutes would be meaningless if actions taken during a closed or secret meeting are valid. Even if the policy was adopted in a properly noticed, open meeting, the failure of the association to disseminate the policy to homeowners could render the policy otherwise unenforceable.

Such policies, however, are almost never enforced uniformly or objectively.  The policy is often enforced only against those designated as troublemakers or outsiders; or delinquent board members may exempt themselves or their friends from the harsh application of the policy; or the policy may be enforced arbitrarily or capriciously.  Any evidence that the policy is not enforced on a uniform and non-preferential basis renders the policy enforceable.  It also violates an association’s duty to treat all homeowners equally and fairly.

Is the Association Shutting Off Water as a Fine or Penalty?

The non-payment of assessments, as discussed above, should not be condoned and Arizona law provides remedies for the non-payment of those assessments.  In many cases, an association has threatened to shut off water or other utilities as a means of forcing a homeowner to pay disputed fines, penalties, or fees.  The nature of the monetary amount that is the subject of the collection effort is a crucial factor that must be considered in challenging the water shut off policy.

Although it is our position that water shut-off policies are almost always unenforceable, the challenge to the policy is strengthened where the alleged delinquent balance includes disputed fines, penalties, and charges other than just assessments. The rationale common employed by an association defending a water shut-off policy is that assessments are used to pay the utilities.  This rationale is absent where the balance consists, in part or whole, of fines or penalties for alleged (and unproven) CC&R violations.

Arizona law distinguishes between assessments and fines.  For example, a homeowners association has the statutory right to foreclose where the unpaid assessments exceed $1,200.00 or have not been paid for more than one year, the association generally does not have the right to foreclose for violation fines or penalties.  If an association cannot foreclose if you paint your house the wrong color or leave your trashcan out overnight, why should they be allowed to shut off your water in order to force you to pay fines and penalties that you dispute and may not even be valid!

Conclusion.

In many cases, a policy that allows the association to deny essential utilities or access to your unit is subject to challenge.  Because every case is unique, you should not rely on this article as legal advice specific to your situation.  But if you are faced with threats of having your water shut off, you should immediately consult a lawyer.

My HOA got a $1,200.00 judgment against me. So why are they saying I owe $6,000?

If you live in a homeowners association and have ever fallen behind on your assessments, chances are good you received one or more letters threatening legal action.  If you have been unlucky enough to be sued by your homeowners association and lost, chances are very good that your homeowner association has added court costs and attorneys’ fees to the amount of the unpaid assessments.  Arizona law and homeowners association’s governing documents generally permit a homeowners association, if successful in court, to include its costs and attorneys’ fees in addition to the unpaid assessments in any judgment it obtains against you.

The next step would be for the homeowners association to try to collect its judgment. This might include demand letters, wage garnishments, or other collection methods.  A common scenario that we see is that the homeowners association never limits its collection to the amount of the judgment and in most cases seeks to collect several thousand dollars, sometimes three or four times, or more, greater than the amount of the actual judgment, as part of its collection efforts.  So that small judgment against you of $1,200.00, which you ignored, has suddenly turned into a wage garnishment of $6,000.  And the amount continues to grow.

The homeowners association will defend the increase as part of its perceived right to collect costs and fees in connection with the original lawsuit.  But whereas the fees and costs incurred getting the judgment may be recoverable, it is our position that a homeowners association and its lawyers do not have the unilaterally right to increases a judgment in order to collect such additional amounts. 

Generally, “a judgment must be a clear, ascertainable debt” that does not have prospective application. Reeb v. Interchange Resources, Inc. of Phoenix, 106 Ariz. 458, 459 (1971).  A party seeking to collect such a judgment should not have the right to decide how much you owe—after all, isn’t that the purpose of the judgment?  A judgment is a piece of paper that you should be able to determine, at any given time, exactly how much you owe.  Let’s say you want to pay off that judgment, so you call up the association’s lawyer.  It is not fair that the lawyer can give you one number in the morning when you call and another number later that afternoon when you call back to give your credit card. When the party trying to collect the judgment is increasing that amount in random amounts, without seeking court approval, it is in our opinion an abuse of the legal process and the judgment itself bordering on extortion. 

Where the homeowners association or its lawyers has threatened to garnish wages, or garnished wages, in excess of the amount of the judgment, you are not without legal rights.  In addition to challenging the garnishment, the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act also may afford a remedy to you to recover damages for misrepresenting the amount of the judgment, collecting more than the amount of the judgment, and other unfair collection tactics.

If you believe you are a victim of an over-aggressive homeowners association that is threatening to collect, collecting, or has collected more than its judgment against you, you should seek legal representation to determine whether you have a case.