Anyone who has spent any amount of time at all in community association management has also spent some time in courtrooms. From collections to violations to people who just can't get along, as a professional association manager, you are trained to deal with all sorts of things that can and do go wrong in a community full of the many different personalities that make up a community association.
The key to avoiding a courtroom battle (or making it go faster) is to cover your *bleep* with proper documentation. Here are some tips that will help:
A common complaint that is made by homeowners suing their HOA is that the community employed selective enforcement of the rules, meaning that they were discriminated against in some way.
Courts are sensitive to accusations of discrimination, so it is very important that you are able to show that you employ consistent wording in your communications, as well as consistency in the actions that you take.
One easy way to accomplish this is to set up letters in your community management software that are consistently used for every communication you have with homeowners. The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words also holds true here. Consistently incorporating photographs of violations in your letters is a great way to avoid potential litigation.
Benjamin Isip of Towers Property Management attests to the power of pictures: “Homeowners take action faster, the association looks nicer and we spend less time communicating the violation. They see that picture with the violation and they know exactly what it is, what they have to do, and how much time they have to take care of it. It’s so straightforward it’s a huge time saver.”
It has also helped him with rental units: “Because there are pictures attached, the landlord’s first call is to the tenant. Now, instead calling us to complain, taking up time from my office staff, they see what the problem is right away.”
Make sure that any documentation you create presents a professional front. Whether you are representing the management company or the association, make sure consistent letterhead style information is included at the top of all of your documents, particularly the Organization name, physical mailing address, and a phone number.
It's important that this contact information be included in every document so that the recipient cannot claim in court that they did not have a way to contact you. (Be sure you also include this information in the signature of your email programs as well!)
In the content of your communications, be sure you are using clear, specific language that is easy to interpret.
Also be sure to include the date on any communications you send - under no circumstances should you ever backdate any communications, this can backfire on you in court.
The best way to CYA is to write down every single conversation you have, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Anytime you or anyone in your organization talks on the phone, in person, or exchanges an email with a homeowner, make sure they document it.
This can be a simple note in your management software - all it needs is a date, and a name of the person who spoke with the owner. Not only are such notes great records to CYA, they are also extremely useful to keep all of your team on the same page with an owner.
Avelino Vide of Avid Community Management relates how such notes help his after-hours emergency service stay on top of issues: “If a homeowner calls on the weekend they can answer any type of question. And, they open service requests that the managers see in the morning to generate work orders, or to just call back and document the conversation. If the homeowner calls again, the emergency line person can see that the manager has already told them no.”
I cannot guarantee that using these practices will help you avoid the courtroom every time, but I can certainly promise that they will make it easier if you do end up there. Take a few minutes this week to review your processes and your document templates to insure that your *bleep* is covered!