I’ll sue
I have some experience suing my condominium board of directors, more experience than all but a few owners, and I want to tell you that this is not a decision you should take lightly.

Starting a lawsuit is like starting a war in that it is very easy, and it may seem like fun, to start one but everything changes as you get sucked in to months of worry, work, sleepless nights and never ending legal bills.

You can’t fight city hall
Have you been harmed lately by your HOA board’s decision?
Owner is locked in a losing battle with HOA board

You can’t fight city hall

Well you can fight city hall and you can win, but most often it is smarter, and safer, not to bother. Most likely it is far wiser to sell and move on.

The board will not worry as much, work as hard or lose as much sleep as you will. Why? They are using the owners' money, some of it yours, to fight you so they do not care how much it costs. If fact, the more expensive it gets, the more they like it as they know that the longer they drag it out, the closer they are to driving you into bankruptcy.

Disastrous mistakes
Ignoring letters
Owners ignoring letters from the manager, board or the corporation lawyer—especially the corporation lawyer—are begging for a lot of trouble.
Hiring inexperienced lawyers
This is wonderful. You can get a deal by using a distant relative, your real estate lawyer or somebody a friend recommends. This lawyer is not experienced in condo law but you won't mind he or she charging you $300 an hour or more to learn the Condo Act at your expense. Will you?

If you lose, well just think about what a great deal you would have got if you had won.
Ignoring legal advice
You hire a good lawyer who tells you to pay the $700 for the legal letter and then sell you unit and get out. Oh, no! That is not want you want to hear. You want to fight a case you probably cannot win.
Failing to seek a settlement
Always be willing to compromise. Judges look to see if the loser, and that can be you, tried to settle when they decide legal costs.

Here are a couple of excellent articles that all condo owners should read.


Have you been harmed lately by your HOA board’s decision?
Condo Law Guru
by Beth Grimm
20 February 2014

Sometimes owners are harmed by decisions of the board – and here is an example which is a passage from an email of a person that was referred to me by another attorney:

“My HOA recently replace the old mailbox (was in the entrance to the complex, and was broken in) with the whole complex 72 units Cluster mail box right in front my windows only 8 feet away, not only it block my view, but also it is going to bring a lot more foot traffic to my home, due to the fact mailbox is an easy target of vandalism and breaking in. This make me feel unsafe and invading my privacy.I would like to get Legal advice from you whether i have a case against my HOA?” [Sic.]

This owner did not have money to fight this. I am unable to do pro bono work because I spend so much time and energy writing for the masses. I get it that some owners just cannot pay for legal services.  And I feel badly when something like what is described above happens.

One time I had to step in and help some friends get extracted from a losing battle in litigation they were dragged into by an attorney who failed to tell them what the worst possible scenario might be if they allowed him to file a lawsuit.

He estimated a cost of $5,000 when seeking the original retainer. They were up to about $30,000 and counting with no court date anywhere in sight when they came to me. The trial if it were to come to pass would cost easily $50,000.

The issue was that a board had approved a neighbor’s pool and yard reconstruction without realizing that once constructed it would block the light from all windows on one side of the house of my friends. The neighbors lot was on higher ground and no one paid attention (on the board at least) to what the extension of the elevated pool would do. Of  course my friends “wanted justice”, but it was not looking at all good, because the board had the legal authority to approve the improvements requested by one owner without considering the effect on another, and the other owner had insurance defense counsel on his side, so did not have to bear the expense.

The most that was offered was to plant some trees or shrubs that would block the structure, but there was a real question as to whether they would even grow in the shade of the elevated deck.

In California, if you file a lawsuit and then want to back out because of the cost you might be held liable for the attorney fees and costs of the other side (Heather Farms case), so it was a dicey situation.

The ultimate settlement was the planting of the trees or shrubs of my friends’ choice. They wanted to sell, not have their home eaten up in legal fees. They were fed up with CID (Common-Interest Development—condominium) living where a board could wreak such havoc on their lives.

Once construction is completed, and if the authority is there for the “perpetrator” (in both cases here, the Board) to have made the choice, it can be a real uphill battle to try and get “justice” when there are two sides to the issue equally positioned, and both are competing and equally compelling. I am not saying that there is not a chance to win, but you have to have the stomach (and maybe the purse) for it.

Or, as an alternative, work to get the majority of owners up in arms, which doesn’t seem likely here since the change affected only one owner. And last but not least, it is always possible there may be something the board did that was illegal or contrary, or omitted to do that was a requirement set forth in the governing documents. You can go to californiacondoguru.com  and check my other blog written this same date to see what kinds of other things to look for if you think a board decision might be worth the challenge.

It’s a fact though; sometimes life is just not fair, and you may be better to move on instead of “betting the farm” on the outcome.


Owner is locked in a losing battle with HOA board
Los Angles Times
Donie Vanitzian
29 August 2015

Eleven years ago, I bought the perfect town home. I read all governing documents, attended board meetings, talked to owners, then closed escrow. After I moved in, the board fined me for something preposterous. I paid it to get them off my back.

Since then, reserve accounts have been depleted and special assessments reign. There's perpetual maintenance going on, but nothing gets fixed. I'm acting as my own attorney in a dispute with the board, which stays in power because of inertia and a complicit management company.

My home has become a paper jungle of file cabinets, faxes, copy machines and chalkboards. All my savings have been spent fighting this association, and I lost my job because of it. I want to sue the board but can't afford it. How did I get in this mess and what can I do about it?

Perhaps you were too focused on the perfect town home and not enough on pre-purchase diligence about the homeowner association's functioning. Concentrating on tenure of the board, management, accounts payable and receivable, turnover sales, maintenance issues or the lack thereof might have proved more valuable in making a decision on whether to buy.

Before committing to a purchase, buyers need to realize that nothing stays the same. Governing documents could change during escrow or after purchase and nothing prevents owners from being fined after newly moving in.

Upon realizing there were problems, you should have catalyzed joint action with like-minded titleholders to effect meaningful change without litigation. If self-help efforts don't work, regroup and try again. This is usually impossible once you get into the court system, making litigation a riskier option.

When a lawsuit is contemplated, effective litigation starts strategically: Owners carefully and quietly gather evidence while evolving a plan and maintaining a low profile. Documentary evidence is crucial and far more effective than proving who-said-what-when.

Low profile means not telegraphing your potential suit; that can cause a board to alter its public behavior and become more oppressive toward you, as well as to hide, fabricate or destroy evidence.

Threatening litigation is rarely effective against business entities or bad directors. Not only are bad boards accustomed to such threats, they also can defend against litigation with the association's deep pocket or insurance.

Even if an insurer believes that a board's liability is not covered, it may still defend with a reservations-of-rights, which means that it will seek to recover its legal expense from the association regardless of the outcome. Against such resources your threats stood to have little effect, as the past 11 years bear out.

Your long history of threats has not only alerted the board and its counsel to your legal position, but also put most all your evidence in their hands, giving them a big and cheap head start to fashion defenses should a suit be filed.

Given your history, any suit you pursue has become much harder and more expensive. You provided your evidence for free while enabling the opposition to force you into expensive discovery to obtain theirs.

Unfortunately, you bit off more than you could chew, in effect acting as your own lawyer and naively prejudicing your cause.

No doubt early on you thought the right letter would induce the board to see the error of its ways. This rarely happens. Despite more and ever stronger letters, such battles can become an addiction for some titleholders.

This sorry, protracted trail renders the case especially unappealing for all but hourly-fee lawyers. Even so, the extensive history and documentary volume would be a quagmire for any attorney.

Michael Krieger, a Los Angeles lawyer practicing business contract, technology and intellectual property law, co-wrote this column. Vanitzian is an arbitrator and mediator.

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