One problem that owners in HOAs and condominiums face is access to justice. Boards enjoy various out-of-court remedies, such as fines, liens and foreclosures. To obtain remedies for the board’s breach of the governing documents, owners must bring a lawsuit. This requires legal counsel familiar with how governing documents, statutes and judicial precedent fit together. When cases go to trial, owners face uncertainty in the amount of attorney’s fees that may be awarded to the prevailing party. What determines whether a condo owner prevails on her request for attorneys fees? Many judges seem reluctant to award a full amount of attorney’s fees. Is seeking the assistance of a state agency a viable alternative to the courts?
I’m happy when I can report news to my readers when owners win and courts set precedents that will help them in the future. On April 13, 2017, condo owner Martha Lambert won a significant victory in the Supreme Court of Virginia against Sea Oats Condominium Association. Her board forced her to hire an attorney go to trial to obtain reimbursement for a $500.00 repair. The governing documents contractually obligated this Virginia Beach association to repair an exterior door jamb to her condo unit. The board failed to make the repair despite her persistent requests. They insisted that the damage was to a limited common element that was her responsibility. Initially, she sought petitioned the Virginia Common Interest Community Ombudsman’s Office to redress the board’s adverse decision. The Ombudsman issued a couple decisions letters indicating that she was unable to help Ms. Lambert. The owner made the repair herself and sued the association in the General District Court of Virginia Beach. When Sea Oats prevailed in G.D.C., Lambert appealed to the Circuit Court. There Sea Oats continued to defend the case, filing a motion and discovery requests. Lambert prevailed in the subsequent trial. The judge awarded a $500 judgment in her favor and against the condominium association. Ms. Lambert’s attorney submitted an affidavit indicating she incurred $8,232.00 in attorney’s fees. Under the Virginia Condominium Act, a prevailing party is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees. The parties submitted briefs and argued a post-trial motion on the issue of attorney’s fees.
The lawyers for the condominium board opposed the attorney’s fees award. They argued that the owner’s request for attorney’s fees was 16 times the amount of the judgment. Without waiting to read Ms. Lambert’s response, the Judge James C. Lewis awarded her only $375.00 in attorney’s fees. Ms. Lambert’s attorney nonetheless filed a brief, and provided notice that she incurred an additional $2,650 in fees for the post-trial motions activity.
Was court litigation Ms. Lambert’s only means of redress against the condo board’s adverse decision regarding the broken door? Is there some state agency or official who can aid resolution of these disputes? Ms. Lambert tried to take this dispute to the Office of the Common Interest Community Ombudsman. Ombudsman Heather S. Gillespie issued a decision letter on April 17, 2013. Ms. Gillespie observed that her office lacked the legal authority to decide the dispute because the answer lay in the interpretation of the condominium instruments (bylaws, covenants, etc.) as to whose obligation it was to repair the limited common element. In a separate letter dated May 13, 2013, Ms. Gillespie declined to decide against Sea Oats on Ms. Lambert’s claim to inspect the association books and records pursuant to the Condominium Act. Ms. Gillespie observed that the Act was not clear and that sorting out statutory ambiguity was the province of the courts. As you can see from this case study, the Ombudsman’s Office lacks the authority to decide cases where parties present conflicting interpretation of legal documents. Of course, if the parties agreed as to what they meant, there would not be a dispute. Consumers and property owners are better off in court anyway because of the independence of the judiciary from lobbying and the political winds of change.
Ms. Lambert’s only effective means of redress was through the courts so that’s where she went. There are two ways of looking at Ms. Lambert’s case. There is a view that if someone files a civil lawsuit, they must have done something wrong to incur the damage that they suffered or they are otherwise petty or vindictive. In my years of practice both bringing and defending civil suits, I have come to see that there is often an unfair prejudice against plaintiffs.
The other perspective is that Sea Oats drove unnecessary litigation by failing to perform their maintenance obligations and then aggressively defending the suit to exhaust Ms. Lambert’s resources. If the defendant can simply outspend and exhaust their opponent, they don’t need to be in the right. If obstructionist tactics are rewarded in how attorney’s fee awards are determined, then the specific obligations of the HOA or condominium covenants can be made of no effect.
Judge Lewis explained why he only awarded $375 in attorney’s fees. He found that Ms. Lambert’s lawyer did a “magnificent job,” but “I thought $6,000 in attorney’s fees on a case involving a dispute of $500 was not fair to the Defendant [Sea Oats].” Ms. Lambert appealed her case to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Was it proper for Judge Lewis to find that a prevailing party could be denied almost all the attorney’s fees she incurred because the amount was not “proportional” to the judgment? Lawyers know from experience that, especially in many state courts, judges are reluctant to award a prevailing party $6,000-$9,000 in attorney’s fees on a $500.00 judgment. The practical effect is that owners and their lawyers are reluctant to bring lawsuits where the amount of attorney’s fees is expected to exceed the value of what could be expected in the judgment. Sometimes these circumstances embolden boards to strategically breach the covenants.
On appeal, Ms. Lambert analogized the attorney’s fees provision in the Condominium Act to similar provisions in the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. The Supreme Court previously held that the purpose of the VCPA’s attorney’s fees provisions is to encourage private citizens to enforce the statute through civil litigation. Otherwise, the VCPA’s policies could be made of no effect if the consumer must bear the costs of vindicating the statutory rights. If you listen to the audio recording on the Court’s website, you can hear Lambert’s appellate attorney Kevin Martingayle doing an excellent job arguing the case to the justices.
On appeal, a judge’s determination of an award of attorney’s fees is evaluated on an “abuse of discretion” standard. However, the scope of the judge’s discretion is not absolute. The statutes and contract provisions create a boundary of exercise of discretion. The Supreme Court viewed the trial judge’s “proportionality” requirement as an incorrect legal conclusion misinforming his decision.
The Condominium Act states that the prevailing party in an action to enforce compliance with the condominium covenants and bylaws shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees. There is an analogous section in the Property Owners Association Act that applies to most HOA’s in Virginia. These statutes are exceptions to the general rule that each party to a lawsuit must pay their own attorney’s fees. Unless you are in Alaska, courts won’t consider attorneys fee requests unless there is a statute or contract provision that allows for attorney’s fees. The Condominium Act makes an award of reasonable attorney’s fees mandatory when one side prevails, instead of merely an option for the judge.
What factors determine the reasonableness of an award of attorney’s fees? According to the Supreme Court of Virginia, those factors include:
Judges are also permitted to consider other factors. In Lambert v. Sea Oats, the Supreme Court found that the amount of damages awarded was a permissible consideration under the “results obtained” factor. However, “merely applying a ratio between the damages actually awarded and damages originally sought will not satisfy the reasonableness inquiry.” This is common sense. In some cases, the non-prevailing party will engage in vigorous litigation tactics that will leave their opponent with the choice of taking necessary action to obtain a result in the case or abandon the claim. Conversely, plaintiffs can also be found to “over-litigate” cases, resulting in defendants incurring attorney fees that may be unnecessary in the case was properly brought. A formulaic ratio may be simply inadequate to do justice. The Supreme Court observed that a trial court may consider any disparity between the amount sought in the lawsuit versus the verdict. If a plaintiff sues for $500,000.00 but only receives $50,000.00 at trial, then this may factor in the attorney’s fee award. The Supreme Court found that Judge Lewis should have compared the $500 sought to the $500 awarded instead of the ratio of the fee request to the award:
[T]he “results obtained” factor does not permit courts to do what the circuit court did here—i.e., to use the amount of damages sought as a limit beyond which no attorney’s fees will be awarded. To do so tells parties that they may not recover the reasonable attorney’s fees they incur simply by sending an attorney through the courthouse door if they prosecute, or defend against, claims in which such fees exceed the amount in controversy. Circuit court litigation comes at a price, sometimes a heavy price. There is an initial pleading, or an answer to one, to research, write, and file. Discovery may be propounded and must be answered. There will be witnesses to prepare for trial. There may be pre-trial motions to research, write, and argue. And then there is the trial itself, if the case makes it that far. If either party invokes its right to a jury, trial could encompass everything from voir dire to jury instructions.
Each of these tasks requires an attorney’s time and, provided the time is reasonable in light of his or her experience and the nature of the case, he or she may expect compensation for that time at a reasonable rate. Undoubtedly, the number of tasks and the time required for them will vary depending on whether the ad damnum is $500 or $5 million, regardless of whether the attorney represents the plaintiff or the defendant. They will likewise vary based on the vigor with which the opposing party responds. But it is the court’s duty to assess the necessity of those tasks, the time spent on them, and the rate charged “under the facts and circumstances of the particular case.” Mullins, 241 Va. at 449, 403 S.E.2d at 335. This does not require the court to pore over pages and pages of billing records to evaluate the reasonableness of each line-item. But the court may neither shirk its duty to assess what amount of attorney’s fees is reasonable in the specific case before it, nor award an amount so low that it fails to reimburse the prevailing party for the costs necessary to effectively litigate the claim that—after all—it prevailed on.
Plaintiffs who come to court believe they have legitimate claims that are being illegitimately denied by the defendant. Defendants who come to court believe their defenses are legitimate. Neither’s position need be frivolous; they may simply disagree. But when each of them comes to court seeking a neutral adjudication of their disagreement, each is there because the opposing side forced him or her to be. When the case is covered by a fee-shifting provision and the court weighs the reasonable amount of attorney’s fees to award, it cannot dismiss out of hand the costs of litigation inflicted on the prevailing party by the losing party’s insistence on its losing argument, based solely on the dollar value of the claim. To do so deprives the parties of the benefit of their bargain if the fee-shifting provision is contractual and contravenes the intent of the General Assembly if the provision is statutory.
We stress that this holding does not mean that courts may not consider the value of the claim, along with other factors, to assess the complexity of the case (and therefore the legal services necessary to represent the client’s interests), or whether those services were necessary and appropriate in light of the claims prosecuted or defended against. It means only that courts may not do what this court did and say that “$6,000 in attorney’s fees on a case involving a dispute of $500” is unreasonable per se, without regard to the necessary costs of effectively litigating a claim.
The Supreme Court’s decision requires the case to go back to the Circuit Court of Virginia Beach to reconsider the award of attorney’s fees in light of the opinion.
Lambert v. Sea Oats is a big victory for owners in condominiums and HOAs. First, it sends a message that the particular circumstances of a case cannot be ignored and replaced by some percentage of the judgment. Second, this discourages HOA and condo boards from stonewalling owners’ rightful claims for what they are entitled under the governing documents. Third, it puts the obligation on the parties to make sound, rational litigation decisions. Fourth, it will help owners in cases that will never actually go to court. Why? Because the association lawyers will counsel their clients regarding this case and it will deter the kind of conduct that gave rise to cases like Ms. Lambert’s.
What I dislike about the trial judge’s approach in awarding only $375 is that it places parties like Ms. Lambert in an impossible position. Without reversals like this appellate decision, in the next case an owner would have to either (a) fix the common area herself and not seek reimbursement, thus making the covenants to no benefit to her, (b) limit the attorney’s activity to one or two hours of work, which could result in the owner losing the case for failure on a procedural technicality, or (c) effectively pay eight or nine thousand dollars to get the door fixed when the board is required to do it for $500.00.
Not all community association lawsuits are about money damages. Sometimes the plaintiff seeks an order that their opponent stop doing something, to take affirmative action required under a contract, or to declare the results of a board election invalid. In a footnote, the Supreme Court states that in those cases there may not be a dollar amount in controversy: “These cases tend to be binary, and the ‘result obtained’ is clear based on whether the relief sought was granted or denied.”
Does this new decision mean that homeowners will always get a disproportional award of attorney’s fees in small dollar cases where they prevail? No. But it does help to level the playing field of litigation. I hope that this case encourages more owners to pursue legal action when they suffer damage and infringement of rights in association matters. This case should also discourage owners and boards alike from bringing cases that should not be brought in the first place.
For Further Reading or Listening:
The photograph for this blog post doesn’t depict anything discussed in the article. It’s a row-house in Alexandria, Virginia.