Bright Lights, Big Lawsuit: Court Says HOA Lacks Authority to Enforce Holiday Decorations Rules

It’s not unusual for a community association board to develop rules and regulations for holiday decorations — but do they have that authority? You might be surprised. This week, we discuss a case where the Virginia Supreme Court struck down an HOA’s decorations guidelines because the declarations didn’t give the board authority to impose such restrictions.

“This type of thing comes up all the time, not just with decorations,” says David Wilson, an attorney in the Charlotte, N.C., office of Black, Slaughter & Black, P.A. “It really gets down to the fact that there’s a difference between rules and regulations and then your covenants in your recorded declarations.

“It’s a distinction a lot of boards don’t understand.”

The HOA’s board of directors adopted the guidelines in 2014 as part of the association’s handbook and architectural design guidelines. From December 2013 to February 2016, an owner received multiple violation letters for his use of holiday lighting. The letters outlined violations of seasonal guidelines that prohibited leaving holiday lights on after midnight and displaying holiday lights outside of permitted dates.

The owner never responded to the letters. Hearings and fines followed. The owner’s voting rights and access to facilities were suspended. The HOA eventually sued to recover unpaid fines.

After finding the owner’s lights were on 24/7 at least 300 days per year, the trial court awarded the HOA about $900 in unpaid fees and nearly $40,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. It also entered an injunction blocking the owner from further violating the guidelines.

To find out why the state Supreme Court reversed the lower court, and how your clients can develop rules and regulations that can withstand judicial scrutiny, read our new article Ho, Ho, Holiday Decorations: Exterior Lighting Case Highlights Limits to Board Authority.

Best regards,
Matt Humphrey
President