You can file a lawsuit against your homeowners association just like any other organization or corporation. First, study the HOA rules and determine whether you have grounds for taking the HOA to court. Then decide which type of court best suits your needs. Typical reasons for suing include the association's decisions about your property or the HOA failing to perform its duties.
Do Your Research
Read the homeowner association covenants, or rules, to determine if you have a case. For example, if the HOA has rejected the new wing you want to add to your house, confirm that the covenants are on your side. You may not like the board's decision, but if their rejection followed the rules, your lawsuit will be a waste of money. There are some standard grounds for suing a homeowners association:
- The HOA applies the rules differently because of your race, religion, nationality or similar factors.
- The HOA mismanages homeowner fees.
- The association doesn't perform the maintenance or repairs guaranteed in your contract.
These are not the only grounds to sue a homeowners association, but they are common ones.
Sue the Board or Sue a Member?
If the HOA has failed to perform maintenance or ruled against you unfairly, the usual step is to sue the board. Your state law may limit the liability an individual member has. In some cases, however, suing an individual board member is appropriate. For example, a board member who repeatedly blocks a vote on fixing a known safety hazard could be guilty of negligence, and that could waive any legal protection they have.
Choosing a Court
Suing an individual or an organization in small claims court is typically quicker and cheaper than any other approach. Small doesn't mean pennies: California, for example, allows suits for damages up to $10,000 in small claims court. Small claims courts don't use lawyers. Typically you'd file your lawsuit with the small claims court that has jurisdiction in your neighborhood.
For larger amounts, you'll need to use a different court. North Carolina, for example, has small claims courts for amounts of $4,000 or less; district courts for $10,000 or less; and superior courts for everything else. Other states do it differently. Your state court system's website will break it down for you.
Depending on your state's laws and your HOA rules, you may have to try mediation or dispute resolution before going to court. Ask an attorney if you're unsure about the law.
Filing a Lawsuit
Once you decide on which court to use, check with the clerk of that court or the court's website for the right procedure. If you're filing in Michigan small claims court, for example, you fill out paperwork and pay a fee, which varies with the amount of damages you want. You also have to pay the court to deliver notification to the HOA, so that it can respond to the lawsuit.
Whichever court you use, show up at the scheduled hearing on time and bring all the evidence and witnesses you have that will prove your case against the association.
You don't have to sue for money. If you believe the board members made a bad decision and you want the court to overrule them, that also can be grounds for a lawsuit. However, small claims court only covers monetary damages.
- Lawyers.com: Disagreements With Your HOA
- FindLaw: Five Reasons to Potentially Sue Your HOA
- Nolo: Fiduciary Duties of HOA Board Members
- Los Angeles Times: Is Small Claims Court the Right Venue for Resolving HOA Disputes?
- North Carolina Courts: Understanding the Civil Courts Process
- Michigan Legal Help: Taking a Small Claims Case to Court
- Consider hiring an attorney. Suing a homeowner's association typically involves suing on theories that require investigation and fact gathering. In addition, you must comply with court rules and procedures. Plus, an HOA will usually be able to hire its own defense counsel and you will be at a disadvantage unless you hire your own counsel.
- Be advised: the law often changes and is filled with potential pitfalls for those seeking to handle their own legal problems. This article is not intended to provide you with legal advice. You are strongly encouraged to seek the assistance of an attorney in your area.
Fraser Sherman has written about bankruptcy law, real estate law, tax law, business law and several other categories. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com