March 27, 2012

Disputes Between Owners Pose Risks to Community Associations

It is always unfortunate when disputes between neighbors escalate into litigation. The Washington Court of Appeals was recently confronted with just such a case. The first sentence of its unpublished opinion last month sets the tone: “Tensions arose among neighbors in a Redmond cul-de-sac after the Wherretts began parking numerous vehicles and buses on their property and on the street.” Police involvement, surveillance, civil anti-harassment orders, and a lawsuit followed. The court notes during the course of its opinion that taking numerous photographs and videos of items in public view for the purpose of documenting alleged misconduct did not form the basis for a legal claim against one of the owners. The court ultimately affirms the summary judgment dismissal of the plaintiff’s case.

Community association boards must choose their approach carefully when owners quarrel. Do they stay out of the dispute entirely? Do they provide a forum to discuss the dispute? Do they convey a position regarding the dispute? All of those choices involve varying amounts of risk that the association will be sued by one of the owners. Minimizing that risk is an important (some would say the most important) consideration when boards are evaluating how to respond to disputes between owners.

Boards understandably tend to prefer the “stay out of it” approach to owner disputes whenever possible, and this is a legitimate response in many instances. However, boards must verify that disputes do not involve a violation of their association's governing documents before selecting that option. If a board fails to do so and the dispute does involve such a violation, then one of the owners may be able to successfully argue that the association is also liable for damages.