April 10, 2009

Enforcing the Governing Documents

The United States Supreme Court, at the time led by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled in 1832 that the forced migration of the Cherokees from South Carolina was unlawful. President Andrew Jackson is said to have responded as follows: "John Marshall has made his decision. Let him enforce it." The Cherokees were subsequently removed to Oklahoma.

If owners are not complying with the restrictions contained in a community association’s governing documents, the board of directors must decide how to respond. The association’s governing documents typically provide the board with several enforcement powers, which include imposing fines, suspending the right to use recreational facilities, and beginning a lawsuit. The preferred initial course of action is usually imposing a fine, but the board should make sure that it is acting in accordance with the Washington laws that govern this power.

There are three basic rules to remember regarding fines. First, a fine must be reasonable, which means that the fine amount should be related to the harm caused by the violation. Second, a fine must be based on a previously established schedule that has been adopted by the board and distributed to the owners. Third, a fine may only be imposed after the owner has been given notice that a fine is being considered and an opportunity to be heard by the board of directors or a designated representative regarding the alleged violation. Failing to meet these legal requirements will give the owner a basis to challenge the fine.

However, some violations may call for a different response. As noted in a recent KING 5 report, many condominium owners attempting to sell their units are being compelled by negative financial circumstances and the sour real estate market to rent their units on a month-to-month basis until they are sold. Such short-term rentals are often inconsistent with their associations’ governing documents. Boards confronted with this issue may wish to simply approve these types of rentals based on the “hardship exception” that is typically present in the governing documents. Boards likewise have the discretion to make exceptions with regard to other types of restrictions in the governing documents if extraordinary circumstances justify it.