By Glen C. Hansen

Almanor Lakeside Villas Owners Assn. v. Carson (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 761

In an action by a homeowners’ association to enforce $54,000 in dues, fees, fines and interest imposed on property owners under the applicable CC&Rs, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District held in Almanor Lakeside Villas Owners Assn. v. Carson (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 761, 2016 Cal.App LEXIS 301 that (1) the trial court properly issued a judgment that concluded that only $6,620 of the fines were valid against the owners; (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the association achieved its main enforcement objectives and was therefore the prevailing party under the Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act (“ Act,” Civ. Code §§4000 et. seq.); and (3) the trial court’s award in favor of the association of its full attorneys’ fees and costs in the amount of $101,803.15 was not unreasonable.

In Almanor, the plaintiff was a homeowners association (“Association”) under the Act for the Almanor Lakeside Villa development (“Development”) on Lake Almanor in Plumas County.  Defendants and cross-complainants James and Kimberly Carson owned a lodge and two chalets (the “Properties”) within the Development.  The Properties are among only a few lots in Development that accommodate commercial use, partially due to the preexisting use of the lodge. The Properties were subject to the CC&Rs of the Development.  Among other things, section 4.09 of the CC&Rs prohibited owners from using their lots “for transient or hotel purposes” or renting for “any period less than 30 days.” From 2010 through 2012 the Association’s Board developed rules to enforce the CC&Rs, including enforcement of the section 4.09 restriction on short-term rentals if a copy of any rental agreement is provided to the Association seven days before the rental period.  Other rules were adopted that affected the Properties, such as parking, trash storage, use of common areas, and issuing decals for any boats using the Association’s boat slips. The Carsons did not believe that such rules applied to their Properties because of section 4.01 of the CC&Rs and the long-established commercial status of the Properties.  The Association sought to impose fines and related fees of $19,979.97 on the Carsons for alleged rule violations related to the Carsons’ leasing of their properties in the development as short-term vacation rentals. The Carsons viewed the rules as unlawful and unfair use restrictions on their commercially zoned properties. Also, the Carsons argued that the Association improperly applied $1,160 of the Carson’s payment for dues toward the fines imposed by the Association.

The Association sued to enforce its rules and recover the fines it imposed, estimating that the total owed by the Carsons was $54,000.  The Carsons cross-complained for breach of contract, private nuisance, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. The trial court found that the 30-day minimum rental restriction imposed by section 4.09 of the CC&Rs presented an “obvious conflict” with section 4.01, which “expressly allow[ed] the Carsons to use their lots for commercial purposes (presumably including lodging, since the properties are, in fact, lodges).” The trial court concluded only $6,620 in fines pertaining to the nonuse of the Association’s boat decals were reasonable.  The trial court also concluded that, even assuming the Association had breached the CC&Rs, the Carsons had not proven any damages and so they received nothing on their cross-complaint.  On the parties’ competing motions for attorneys’ fees, the trial court determined the Association to be the prevailing party and awarded the Association its full $101,803.15 in attorneys’ fees and costs.  The Carsons appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment.

On appeal, the Court addressed three issues.  First, the Carsons challenged the trial court’s determination that they failed to prove damages for their breach of contract cause of action in their cross-complaint. The Court held that, while the trial court’s statement of decision did not specifically reference the Carson’s $1,160 damages claim asserted on appeal, the trial court’s finding that the Carsons failed to establish damages by competent evidence was sound.

Second, the Court addressed the Carsons’ argument that the trial court abused its discretion when it found that the Association was the prevailing party despite having disallowed a majority of the fines the Association sought to have imposed.  The Court explained that Civil Code section 5975 of the Act provides that, in an action to enforce CC&Rs “the prevailing party shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.” Thus, “‘“the trial court is therefore obligated to award attorney fees whenever the statutory conditions have been satisfied.”’” The test for prevailing party “is a pragmatic one, namely whether a party prevailed on a practical level by achieving its main litigation objectives.” That test involves a comparison of “the relief awarded on the contract claim or claims with the parties’ demands on those same claims and their litigation objectives as disclosed by the pleadings, trial briefs, opening statements, and similar sources.” Thus, the court must compare “‘the extent to which each party ha[s] succeeded and failed to succeed in its contentions’” and “the practical effect of the relief attained by each.”

Here, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the Association was the prevailing party.  Of the 88 fines that the Association sought to enforce at trial, the trial court upheld only eight. The Carsons’ success at trial substantially lowered their liability for damages and supported their position that the CC&Rs and associated rules could not impose an unreasonable burden on the properties.  However, by upholding a subset of the fines, the trial court “ruled more broadly” that the Association could impose reasonable use restrictions on the Carsons’ properties. That ruling “echoed [the Association’s] stated objective at trial that the Association sought to counter the Carsons’ position that ‘because their lot is zoned “Commercial,” they are not bound by the rules.  “The fractional damages award does not negate the broader, practical effect of the court’s ruling, which on the one hand narrowed the universe of restrictions that [the Association] could impose on the properties, but on the other hand cemented [the Association’s] authority to promulgate and enforce rules pursuant to the CC&Rs so long as they are not unreasonable.” The court also ruled entirely in favor of the Association on the Carsons’ cross-complaint by finding that the Carsons’ alleged damages were unsupported by competent evidence and too speculative. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining the Association to be the prevailing party.

The Carsons made the public policy argument that, by granting attorneys’ fees to the Association, “the Court is stating that the Carsons should have paid the $54,000.00 that Respondent claimed was owed … , even though only $6,620.00 was actually owed, because they would be penalized for defending themselves and, in the end, owe an additional $101,803.15 in attorney’s fees for defending themselves.” The Court rejected that argument because the Act mandates the award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party, and so the trial court had no discretion to deny attorney’s fees once it determined who was the prevailing party.

Third, the Court addressed the Carsons’ argument that the amount of the attorneys’ fees that the trial court awarded was unreasonable (“grossly disproportionate”) in light of the Association’s limited success at trial.   That is an issue committed to the discretion of the trial court. The Carsons argued that Code of Civil Procedure section 1033, subdivision (a), provides that the court has the discretion to disallow attorney’s fees if a party obtains less than the statutory minimum to be classified as an unlimited civil matter.  But the Court rejected that argument because the discretionary provisions of section 1033, subdivision (a), are irreconcilable with the mandatory fees award under section 5975 of the Act.  The Court recognized that “degree of success” may be considered in determining reasonable attorney’s fees under Civil Code section 5975 of the Act, and to the extent a trial court is concerned that a particular award is excessive, “‘it has broad discretion to adjust the fee downward.’” In this case, however, the record did not show that trial court committed a manifest abuse of discretion by awarding the full attorney’s fees sought.  Also, the Carsons did not request a statement of decision with regard to the fee award, and so all intendments and presumptions are indulged to support the judgment. Furthermore, the trial court’s decision is supported by the fact that the minor subset of the fines that formed the basis for the Association’s monetary award requested was sufficient to satisfy the statutory criteria of an action to enforce the governing documents. “In practical effect, [the Association’s] limited success established a baseline from which it can continue to adopt and enforce reasonable use restrictions under the CC&Rs.” Thus, the Court did not find that the award of attorney’s fees, compared to the overall relief obtained by the Association was so disproportionate as to constitute an abuse of discretion.

Glen Hansen is a Senior Counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.