This case involved a dispute between a homeowner („Owner“), and her homeowners association („Association“) and its property manager („Manager“), concerning personal injuries suffered by Owner when she fell on Association’s premises. Owner filed an action for personal injuries against Association and Manager in which she prevailed, and thereafter requested an award of attorney fees and costs as the prevailing party under California law and Association’s CC&Rs.
In her complaint, Owner alleged claims that were based on common law negligence, which would not allow for the recovery of attorney fees, and also claims against Association and Manager which alleged breach of fiduciary duty, breach of Association’s CC&Rs, and declaratory relief, for which the prevailing party would be entitled to recover attorney fees. By incorporating the additional claims, Owner was contending that Association and Manager owed a duty to maintain all common areas in a safe condition and to perform repairs to the common areas and not create dangerous or unsafe conditions, but breached those duties and Association’s CC&Rs which imposed certain maintenance and safeguard responsibilities.
The Trial Court Ruling
The trial court denied Owner’s request for an award of attorney’s fees, ruling that Owner’s claims were not based on „an action to enforce or interpret“ Association’s CC&Rs, but was instead based on common law negligence claims which did not involve claims based on breach of contract or a statute that authorized the recovery of attorney fees by the prevailing party.
Owner Disagrees – And Appeals
Owner appealed the trial court’s judgment denying her request for an award of attorney fees. In the appeal, Owner contended that Association’s CC&Rs were put in issue by her claims and that she was entitled to recover attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. Association and Manager contended that Owner’s action was a negligence action that did not allow for the recovery of attorney fees and it did not involve the interpretation or enforcement of Association’s CC&Rs.
The Appellate Court Ruling
The appellate court ruled that Owner would be entitled to recover attorney fees from Association as the prevailing party if her negligence action was based on claims to enforce Association’s CC&Rs. Because Manager was not a party to a contract with Owner, there would be no right to recover attorney fees from Manager. In evaluating the claims, the appellate court ruled that an award of attorney’s fees may be recovered by a prevailing party in a case to „enforce“ Association’s governing documents, and not merely an action that involves or arises out of the governing documents or duties that are owed under them. The appellate court commented that, had the legislature intended to allow the prevailing party in an action other than to enforce the governing documents, the applicable statutes would have been written to provide for attorney fees to the prevailing party in any action that arises out of or is related to the governing documents, or in which they are enforced. Because Owner proceeded to trial on her negligence claim in the trial court, the appellate court ruled that even though Association’s CC&Rs required Association to maintain the common areas, Owner’s action was not brought to compel Association to do so, but to recover damages suffered as a result of Association’s negligence in failing to properly maintain the common area. As such, the appellate court ruled that Owner’s action was not an action to enforce Association’s CC&Rs and therefore, Owner was not entitled to an award of attorney fees.
UNPUBLISHED California Appellate Court decision (April 12, 2018)
See case decision: Martini_v._Bel_Azure_Homeowners_Ass’n_(Cal._App._2018)1