Monday, January 04, 2010

The Free Speech Argument in HOA/CID Environment

Rancho Santa Margarita, CA - Often, resident complaints in a common interest development (CID) community are dismissed as coming from “disgruntled residents.” Other times, the local governing body threatens litigation using the “defamation argument” meant to stifle free speech, while atg the same time arguing that in a CID environment, there is no such thing as free speech.

In the case of Jeffrey M Turner VS. Vista Pointe Ridge Homeowners Association filed 12- 22-2009, the Fourth California Appellate District takes up the issue:

The Aliso Viejo’s Vista Pointe Ridge Homeowners Association brought a successful Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 motion to strike a complaint by Jeffrey M. Turner and Nanette K. Turner. The Turners appeal. They contend the trial court erred in construing all matters in connection with a homeowners association’ s application of architectural guidelines as matters to which section 425.16 applies. The Court agreed.

The Association argued that section 425.16, subdivision (e)(4) applies whenever the issue concerns the conduct of a homeowners association in discharging its architectural review obligations. The Association cites Damon, supra, 85 Cal.App.4th 468 and Ruiz, supra, 134 Cal.App.4th 1456 for that proposition. The Court found that the Association “..reads those two opinions too broadly..” and the Court goes on to explain:

Damon, supra, 85 Cal.App.4th 468 involved a defamation action brought by a former manager of a homeowners association. (Id. at p. 471.) In that case, a number of homeowners had been unhappy with the plaintiff’s management style and had wanted a different manager for their homeowners association. To express their views and garner support for their positions, they prepared editorials, articles and letters to the editor that 7 were published in a newsletter circulated to homeowners association members and others. Certain members of the homeowners association board of directors spoke critically of the plaintiff at board meetings and one of them wrote memoranda criticizing the plaintiff‟s performance. (Id. at p. 472.) Ultimately, the plaintiff’s contract term ended and he was replaced. The plaintiff filed suit against two board members who had been critical of him, certain homeowners association members whose articles or letters had been published in the newsletter, and the publisher of the newsletter. (Id. at p. 473.) The trial court granted the defendants‟ section 425.16 motion to strike the plaintiff’s complaint, finding that the complaint arose out of the defendants’ exercise of their free speech rights with respect to a public issue. (Ibid.)

The Damon court observed that the allegedly defamatory statements had to do with whether the homeowners should engage in self-government or should utilize a professional management company, and whether the plaintiff was competent to manage the homeowners association. The statements concerned issues of public interest because “they concerned the very manner in which [a] group of more than 3,000 individuals would be governed—an inherently political question of vital importance to each individual and to the community as a whole. ” (Damon, supra, 85 Cal.App.4th at p. 479.) Furthermore, the statements pertained to political matters, inasmuch as they were made in the context of homeowners association board elections and recall campaigns. The court observed that “„[the right to speak on political matters is the quintessential subject of our constitutional protections of the right of free speech.”

As the Damon court explained: “In 1992, the Legislature enacted section 425.16 to provide a procedure for a court „to dismiss at an early stage nonmeritorious litigation meant to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition in connection with a public issue. This type of nonmeritorious litigation is referred to under the acronym SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. In 1997, the Legislature added a provision to section 425.16 mandating that courts „broadly‟ construe the anti-SLAPP statute to further the legislative goals of encouraging participation in matters of public significance and discouraging abuse of the judicial process. (§ 425.16, subd. (a).)” (Damon, supra, 85 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.)

The Court concludes that "More significantly, Damon, supra, 85 Cal.App.4th 468 is distinguishable because it clearly centered upon the right of free speech."

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