Owner’s Refusal to Pay $280 in Assessments Results in $28,000+ Judgment Against Him

This case involved a dispute between a homeowner (“Owner”) and his homeowners association (“Association”) over Owner’s liability for unpaid assessments that Association alleged Owner owed, and an award of attorney fees to Association following a trial on the issues.

When Owner purchased his home in 2014, it was subject to the provisions contained in the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (“CC&Rs”) affecting all of the properties within the community. One such provision was a requirement for the homeowners in the community to pay annual assessments or charges to Association. After Owner refused to pay the annual assessments for both 2015 and 2016, which totaled $280.00, Association sent Owner a letter demanding payment of the $280.00 plus an additional $100.00 for attorney’s fees allegedly incurred by Association. Owner continued to refuse to pay and Association notified Owner that his nonpayment was going to result in Association filing a lien on Owner’s property. In response, Owner, acting in pro per, filed a complaint against Association contending that Association violated provisions in the governing documents in calculating the amount of the assessments and as a result, the lien filed on Owner’s property was invalid. Association filed an answer that denied Owner’s claims in response to the action filed by owner, and a counterclaim against Owner which alleged a claim for breach of contract based on Owner’s failure to pay the assessments required under the CC&Rs. Additionally, Association alleged that it was entitled to recover its costs and attorney fees under the terms contained in the CC&Rs.

The trial court found in favor of Association in dismissing Owner’s claims and awarding Association judgment on its counterclaim for the unpaid assessments totaling $280.00. Notwithstanding the small amount owed for the assessments, Association requested an award of over $32,000.00 for costs and attorney fees. Association contended that the bulk of the fees were incurred in defending against the claims made by Owner, which were directly related to Association’s efforts to collect the assessments owed by Owner. Owner argued that Association should not be awarded fees and costs relating to the defense of Owner’s claims, which amounted to all but $1,500.00 of the amount claimed by Association. The trial court found that the case really involved Association’s right to collect the annual assessments that Owner refused to pay and which gave rise to Owner’s lawsuit against Association. Because the gravamen of Owner’s lawsuit was to avoid having to pay the two years of annual assessments, the trial court found that Association was entitled to an award of attorney’s fees in the amount of $28,372.06. Owner then appealed contending that the trial court committed error in awarding attorney fees to Association.

The appellate court stated that the sole issue centered on the trial court’s interpretation and application of the attorney’s fee language contained in the CC&Rs, which stated, in part:

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