Architectural Committees Formal Procedures, Published Standards, and Self Help
There are strict legal requirements that a homeowners’ association’s (HOA) architectural review committee (ARC) must follow, most especially if the ARC intends to deny an owner’s request. As this author has witnessed countless times, it is likely that many ARCs do not conduct their activities in conformity with Florida law such that an ARC denial may not withstand judicial scrutiny. If these legal requirements are not followed, and the ARC denies the owner’s architectural request, then it would be quite easy for the owner to challenge the ARC’s decision and prevail. Upon prevailing, the owner would be entitled to their prevailing party attorney’s fees and costs, as well. It is so easy to avoid this outcome, yet so few associations take the time to do it right.
Pursuant to §720.303(2), Florida Statutes, a meeting of the ARC is required to be open and noticed in the same manner as a meeting of the association’s board of directors. Notice of the ARC meeting must be posted in a conspicuous place in the community at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting, and the meeting must be open for all members to attend. Further, pursuant to §720.303(2)(c)(3), Florida Statutes, members of the ARC are not permitted to vote by proxy or secret ballot. Also, bare bone minutes should be taken to create a record of ARC decisions—especially denials.
We often hear from many HOAs that the ARC does not meet openly and does not notice their meetings. This leaves decisions made by the ARC vulnerable to challenge. If the ARC denies an application but fails to do so at a properly noticed board meeting, the owner can challenge the denial, claiming that it is not valid because the ARC did not follow proper procedure. In such cases, the ARC’s denial of an application is not valid because the ARC failed to comply with the procedural requirements for the meeting even if an application violates the declaration or other association-adopted architectural standards. However, by complying with the provisions of Chapter 720, Florida Statutes, your HOA can work to avoid this debacle.
Often a top priority for an HOA is ensuring that homes in the community maintain a harmonious architectural scheme in conformity with community standards and guidelines, and because the ARC is at the frontline of owners’ alterations and improvements to their homes, it is instrumental in ensuring that the community standards and guidelines are met. Pursuant to §720.3035(1), Florida Statutes, an HOA, or the ARC, “has the authority to review and approve plans and specifications only to the extent that the authority is specifically stated or reasonably inferred as to location, size, type, or appearance in the declaration or other published guidelines and standards.” But not every owner request is typically addressed in the declaration or other published guidelines and standards. If not, then the association may not be in a good position for proper denial. Therefore, the ARC is only as effective as the objective guidelines and standards (set forth in the declaration and other published guidelines and standards) are inclusive. So, what is the association to do when the ARC receives an owner’s application for an alteration to the home, but the association does not have any architectural guidelines or standards regulating the requested alteration?
While not court tested yet, a possible solution for this conundrum is to include a “catch-all” provision in the declaration to proactively address those ARC applications where a member may request a modification that is not directly addressed by the governing documents. Such a “catch-all” provision stands for the proposition that, if such a request is made, then the existing state of the community is the applicable standard by which the ARC application is to be judged. For example, imagine if an owner applies to the ARC to paint the owner’s house pink. If there are no architectural guidelines or standards that address what color a house must be, and there are no pink houses in the community, then the existing state of the community may provide a lawful basis for the ARC to deny the request because there are no existing pink houses in the community.
The Trouble With Self-Help Provisions
What if an owner refuses to maintain the owner’s property, such as pressure washing a dirty roof, despite the HOA sending demand letters, levying a fine, and perhaps even suspending the owner’s right to use the HOA’s recreational facilities? What is the HOA’s next step? Is it time to file a lawsuit to compel compliance? Well, Chapter 718 (governing condominiums), Chapter 719 (governing cooperatives), and Chapter 720 (governing HOAs) of the Florida Statutes authorize the association to bring an action at law or in equity to enforce the provisions of the declaration against the owner. Additionally, many declarations contain “self-help” language that authorizes the association to cure a violation on behalf of the owner and even, at times, assess the owner for the costs of doing so. These “self-help” provisions generally contain permissive language, meaning the association, may, but is not obligated to, cure the violation. Sadly, in this instance the word “may” means “shall,” and to find out why, read on.
There is a general legal principal that, if a claimant has a remedy at law (e.g., the ability to recover money damages under a contract), then it lacks the legal basis to pursue a remedy in equity (e.g., an action for injunctive relief). Remember, too, that an association’s declaration is a contract. In the context of an association, the legal remedy would be exercising the “self-help” authority granted in the declaration. An equitable remedy would be bringing an action seeking an injunction to compel an owner to take action to comply with the declaration. Generally, a court will only award an equitable remedy when the legal remedy is unavailable, insufficient, or inadequate.
Assume that the association’s declaration contains both the permissive “self-help” remedy and the right to seek an injunction from the court. Accordingly, it would appear the association has a decision to make—go to court to seek the injunction or enter onto the owner’s property, cure the violation, and assess the costs of same to the owner. However, recent Florida case law affirmed a complication to what should be a simple decision. In two cases decided ten years apart, Alorda v. Sutton Place Homeowners Association, Inc., 82 So.3d 1077 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2012) and Mauriello v. Property Owners Association of Lake Parker Estates, Inc., 337 So.3d 484 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2022), Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal decided that an association did not have the right to seek an injunction to compel an owner to comply with the declaration if the declaration provided the association the authority, but not the obligation, to engage in “self-help” to remedy the violation. Expressed simply, this is because the legal contractually based “self-help” remedy must be employed before one can rely upon equitable remedy of an injunction. Therefore, even though the declaration provided for an optional remedy of “self-help,” it must be used before seeking the equitable remedy of an injunction.
In Alorda, the owners failed to provide the association with proof of insurance required by the declaration. Although the declaration allowed the association to obtain the required insurance, the association filed a complaint against the owners seeking injunctive relief, asking the court to enter a permanent mandatory injunction requiring the owners to obtain the requested insurance. The owners successfully argued that even though they violated the declaration, the equitable remedy of an injunction was not available because the association already had an adequate legal remedy—the “self-help” option of purchasing the required insurance and assessing them for same. The Court agreed.
In Mauriello, the declaration contained similar language as in Alorda but involved the issue of the owners failing to keep their lawn and landscaping in good condition as required by the declaration. The association filed a complaint seeking a mandatory injunction ordering the owners to keep their lawn and landscaping in a neat condition. However, the facts were complicated by the sale of the home in the middle of the suit when the new owners voluntarily brought the home into compliance with the declaration. The parties continued to fight over who was entitled to prevailing party attorney’s fees with the association arguing it was entitled to same because the voluntary compliance was only obtained after the association was forced to commence legal action. The owners, citing Alorda, argued that the complaint should have been dismissed at the onset because the association sought an equitable remedy (injunction) when a legal remedy was already available—the exercise of its “self-help” authority. The Court considered the award of attorney’s fees after the dismissal of the association’s action for an injunction. Ultimately, the Court held that the owners were the prevailing party as the association could not seek the injunction because it already had an adequate remedy at law.
Accordingly, if your association’s declaration contains a “self-help” provision, and your association desires to seek an injunction against an owner rather than pursue “self-help,” the board should discuss the issue in greater detail with the association’s legal counsel prior to proceeding. Also, remember that if the association wants to enforce architectural standards, then they must be published to the membership; and always remember to notice ARC meetings and take minutes.
(Reprinted with permission from the February 2023 edition of the “Florida Community Association Journal”.)