Association's Enforcement Efforts Weren't 'Outrageous'
One of the major draws of association living is the aesthetics of the community—specifically, the ability to compel owners to keep their properties well maintained. But, unfortunately, in your management of a planned community, you’ll have to deal with owners who don’t follow architectural review board guidelines or don’t keep up their properties with proper maintenance. There may be pressure from the board or homeowners to crack down on violations. But even in cases where infractions are serious, you should be careful about the manner in which you enforce restrictions and covenants.
An association that was recently sued by a homeowner who felt that its enforcement efforts were tantamount to harassment ultimately prevailed in court—but not without an expensive legal battle. So make sure that you work with the association’s attorney to come up with a plan to use when enforcing rules and restrictions.
In that case, a homeowner in a planned community violated several restrictive covenants by allowing his roof to fall into disrepair and keeping a tree stump and car on his lawn, among other things. The association began sending him warning letters. When the homeowner refused to rectify the situation, the association called him multiple times and then began legal proceedings. Throughout that process, the homeowner complained to the association that he was being harassed by the letters and phone calls.
Eventually, the association sued the homeowner, asking a trial court for a judgment in its favor without a trial. The homeowner claimed that the association’s actions amounted to “intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).” The trial court ruled in the homeowner’s favor. The association appealed. A Texas appeals court reversed.
The appeals court noted that to prevail on a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the homeowner must prove that: (1) the association acted intentionally or recklessly; (2) the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) the actions of the association caused the homeowner emotional distress; and (4) the resulting emotional distress was severe.
Moreover, the emotional distress must be the “intended or primary consequence of the association’s conduct.” In other words, the association specifically tried to upset the homeowner.
The appeals court also pointed out that to be extreme and outrageous, conduct must be “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
Meritorious claims for IIED are “relatively rare” because “most human conduct, even that which causes injury to others, cannot be fairly characterized as extreme and outrageous,” the appeals court added. The trial court had determined that the letters and phone calls, which allegedly caused the homeowner to suffer from depression, were sufficient to cause emotional distress. But the appeals court didn’t side with the trial court.
It said that, in fact, sending letters and making phone calls in order to enforce restrictions in documents that the homeowner had signed when buying his property was reasonable behavior. The owner knew that the association had the right to enforce the restrictions through those methods. So, it shouldn’t have caused distress that’s so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.
Additionally, the appeals court noted that the homeowner had a different claim for “unreasonable collection efforts” available to him as a remedy, and so an IIED claim wasn’t proper in any event; he couldn’t recover for IIED as a matter of law when the behavior he complained about would have fallen under a different claim.
Accordingly, the appeals court held that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the trial court’s judgment and it reversed the decision, ordering the homeowner to reimburse the association for the monetary award he had received [Landing Community Improvement Association v. Young, June 2018].