This case involves what is a common and routine practice at Community Associations throughout California – a member who needed to replace windows due to deterioration. Here, HPBHC member Clint Stevenson, who owns a unit in the 106-unit condominium development, received a letter instructing him that he needed to replace his windows due to deterioration (HPBHC sits literally in the sand next to the Pacific Ocean, so this is a common occurrence).
Over the years, the HPBHC board allowed numerous other unit owners to install windows in the exterior walls of their units to create views and/or air flow, and also to convert windows into doors. Virtually all of the entry way doors at HPBHC were long ago converted into windows so that the units would have a view of the ocean and the entry way doors were then moved to the interior side of the building in place of an existing window – exactly the request from Stevenson. Some 80% of units at HPBHC have been revised using this process, with the addition of more than 90 windows and several window/door swaps. In the words of a former HPBHC HOA president, “It's rather routine."
Following in the footsteps of almost all of the other owners in the development, Stevenson obtained permission to swap out his windows, and also to convert an existing window into a door and convert the old entry way door into a window. The exterior stucco wall space at issue for the conversion of the window to an entry way door was very small: 1⅔ x 3 feet. Plaintiffs in this litigation are 3 other owners—who had added multiple windows to their own units through the very same process—who responded to Stevenson's proposal with the instant lawsuit.
Plaintiffs' lawsuit contended that Civil Code section 4600 required the HPBHC board to obtain approval of 67% of the entire HPBHC membership before authorizing any additional window or door space, no matter how small the expansion. Plaintiffs attempted to stop Stevenson's project and force a membership-wide vote on it by way of a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, which was denied, and Stevenson went forward with his window/door swap.
The parties agreed to conduct the trial in phases with Phase 1 limited to a bench trial on whether Civil Code section 4600 applied to Stevenson's project. At trial, the trial court characterized Plaintiffs' position as “hypertechnical" and “nitpicky." But, the trial court also said that it said that it “would love to be able to say that [section 4600] is a de minimis or reasonableness standard," given that the only issue is “one little piece below the window that became a door" and that Plaintiffs “are going to have a difficult time showing any damage."
But the trial court nonetheless agreed with Plaintiffs' position and ordered that Civil Code section 4600 did apply, with no exemption, and that a vote must take place on whether Stevenson's window for door swap could remain. In sum, the trial court ruled that section 4600's literal language required HPBHC association-wide approval for Stevenson to remove a small square of stucco (or any amount of stucco at all) on the exterior wall of his unit so that the window could be replaced with a door.
The trial court also ruled against our argument that Civil Code section 4600 does not apply because it restricts only grants of non-exclusive use common area for a member's exclusive use, and there was no such grant here: The exterior wall space under Stevenson's window was already for his exclusive use.
Plaintiffs argued, and Judge Crandall (the trial court judge) agreed, even if the stucco wall was nonexclusive use common area, the member's use of the wall space under his window did not fall within an exception to section 4600's approval requirement, which exempts “[a]ny grant of exclusive use" for the reason of “ transfer[ing] the burden of management and maintenance of any common area that is generally inaccessible and not of general use to the membership at large of the association." (Cal. Civ. Code, § 4600(b)(3)(E), italics added.) The Court held that because the stucco wall was “capable of being touched" by members, it was “not generally inaccessible", and that the “not of general use to the membership at large of the association" did not apply.
Brief Author: Anne Rauch, Esq.
CAI Amicus Review Panel: Mr. Robert Diamond, Esq., Mr. Edmund Allcock, Esq., Ms. Laurie Poole, Esq., Mr. David Ramsey, Esq., and Ms. Jennifer Jacobsen, Esq.