By Curtis G. Kimble
I am routinely asked if I will review amended governing documents (CC&Rs, bylaws, etc.) which the board, the property manager or another person has drafted in order to save money over having an HOA attorney draft them.
While this method can sometimes save some money if the association is just looking for a legal review to determine if any of the provisions are contrary to the law or fatally ambiguous or deficient, unfortunately, the new documents typically just exchange an old set of problems for a new set of problems and can even leave the association with worse documents than the original ones.
What about if a board drafts the documents and a qualified attorney reviews and revises them as necessary? Unfortunately, that doesn’t work well either for several reasons.
1. This approach is almost never more cost-effective.
It usually takes more work than if the attorney simply drafted the documents from scratch. All of the drafting done by the board (or other person), down to even the individual words and punctuation (because certain punctuation can have a big effect on the meaning of a provision), not only has to be carefully and painstakingly reviewed to determine if the language would be interpreted in court in the way intended, to ensure that it complies with applicable laws and regulations, and adequately establishes the legal foundation of the development and the association, but also has to be analyzed together with the rest of the document and the other governing documents to ensure they are all consistent. Then, revisions, comments and explanations have to be drafted and then conveyed to the board. All of that is extraordinarily time consuming, and that’s often just the beginning of the revision process.
2. This approach is never more efficient.
It results in the attorney spending the vast majority of time analyzing language written by someone else to determine what its effects will be in different circumstances, how it will be interpreted by a court, and whether it adequately accomplishes its goal. One of the biggest problems with that is the attorney does not necessarily know what the underlying goal or intent is. If the language is unclear at all, the attorney either must seek clarification from the board or must guess from the language itself, and then revise it to more clearly state what the attorney thinks was intended.
This would not be a big deal with a one page document. But an association’s CC&Rs and bylaws are long, complex documents – and necessarily so. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it is better to address potential questions and issues in the documents now and have those documents be a few pages longer, than for the association to be dragged into a long, drawn-out lawsuit over an issue that could have been addressed in the documents but wasn’t.
3. Things get left out.
Because of the inefficiencies and constraints of this process, important remedies, clarifications, standards, and other language will inevitably be left out that may have otherwise been included if the attorney drafted the documents. If the board drafts the documents, the attorney assumes the board knew what it wanted and what it didn’t want, and therefore that the documents include things and don’t include things on purpose.
4. I can say with certainty that the inevitable result with this approach is that much of the language is left by the attorney “as is,” or is revised enough to be satisfactory, rather than improved to an ideal level, because the budget of the association simply doesn’t allow for the attorney to revise every word and comma necessary in the 50 to 80 page document, or because of the other inefficiencies and constraints of this process.
As a side note, the CC&Rs and bylaws are together a 50 to 80 page document regardless of whether or not they are actually 50 to 80 pages (if they are shorter, they may be inadequate). In other words, 50 to 80 pages are necessary in virtually any HOA to properly institute all of the provisions (rights, obligations, remedies, procedures, etc.) that should be in an association’s governing documents in order to adequately establish necessary obligations and rights, address common issues of dispute, include policy and procedures that help the association comply with current laws and regulations (both state and federal), and make clear the association’s ability and authority to operate and govern balanced against the rights of its members, all based on current case law, statutes, and local and national best practices.
As if board members and managers don’t have enough liability to worry about, the unauthorized practice of law also exposes them to potential liability. Drafting a complex legal document defining, granting and restricting the legal rights and obligations of people other than the person drafting it, and which is recorded against the real property of people other than the person drafting it, constitutes the practice of law. As all states do, Utah specifically prohibits the practice of law without a license.
“To leave these issues up to laypersons that aren’t aware of or up to date on the many sources and intricacies of these issues should be unthinkable to any conscientious board.”
But not only that, CC&Rs are the source of broad, complicated contractual rights and obligations that involve property rights and obligations that are tied to the land directly and can affect the ability of owners to sell and finance the purchase of the properties within the association. To leave these issues up to laypersons that aren’t aware of or up to date on the many sources and intricacies of these issues should be unthinkable to any conscientious board. The first goal of drafting any legal document is to avoid expensive court battles over the interpretation and meaning of the terms of the document. Someone who has defended and enforced governing documents in court is able to draft documents effectively by knowing how that document will be interpreted and enforced by the courts.
In an illustration of how intricate and complex contract interpretation can be, the Iowa Supreme Court examined whether a $200,000 special assessment for garage repairs was void because the board failed to obtain preapproval of the repairs from two-thirds of the members in Oberbillig v. West Grand Towers Condominium Association. The following phrase was in the association’s CC&Rs:
“The board shall not approve any expenditure in excess of $25,000, unless required for emergency repair, protection or operation of the Common Elements without the prior approval of two-thirds of the total ownership of the Common Elements.”
Does the word “emergency” refer to all three words “repair, protection or operation” or does it just refer to and modify the word “repair”? In other words, does an expenditure in excess of $25,000 for the protection or operation (in a non-emergency) of the Common Elements require a two-thirds vote of the members? The court applied a legal doctrine of interpretation called the doctrine of the last preceding antecedent to rule that no vote of the members was necessary to levy a $200,000 special assessment for the protection or operation of common elements in a non-emergency.
I’ll spare you the boredom of an explanation of the doctrine of the last preceding antecedent. Suffice it to say, legal documents, especially documents that govern the rights and obligations of dozens or hundreds of homeowners now and for years into the future, should not be drafted by a layperson that is unaware of how seemingly insignificant words and punctuation will affect a court’s interpretation of the document.
Additionally, an HOA attorney who routinely assists boards and property managers with the many issues that face associations on a daily basis knows what problems can and should be addressed in governing documents and how best to address them to minimize problems in the future. Importantly, they’ll also know whether something properly belongs in the CC&Rs rather than in the rules and vice versa. They know what works in other associations and what doesn’t. They know what can lead to hate and discontent and they know what helps promote balance and harmony.
This isn’t to say documents shouldn’t be carefully tailored to an individual community. They definitely should be. That is why form documents or documents taken straight from another community are never acceptable.
Every board should be careful to recognize the importance of their governing documents. They should work closely with their attorney to ensure the documents match the needs and desires of the membership. The attorney will need the input and direction of the board, but the board and manager should stay away from the drafting.