HOA's Member Pays $33,000 in Legal Fees to Install Mailbox (Revised)

Citing an article published on January 23, 2018 in the Washingtonpost.com, "The $35 wooden mailbox Keith Strong bought in 2009 seemed charming and functional for the home he shared with his wife in a posh golf community in the suburbs of Maryland was a newer version of the mailbox the homeowners association previously approved and had sat at the end of their driveway since the couple moved to their Bowie-area home four years earlier. But no more than two months after Strong installed his new mailbox, he received an order to dump it — for a $500 mailbox upgrade".

"It’s a victory that cost Strong $33,000 in legal fees — roughly the price of 66 of the new bronze-colored mailboxes. But the battle was worth the expense, according to the solar physicist who works with NASA.

“It wasn’t just about a mailbox,” Strong said. “The issue really here is property rights. If they were granted this power, where does this stop? It also opens up the whole community to other possible abuses of that power.”

The civil fight — known in some court circles as “the $500 mailbox case” — is one in a line of feuds between homeowners associations seeking to maintain pleasing communities through quality of life standards and property owners who fear individual rights are being trampled by quasi-political bodies run amok.

Or, as Circuit Court Judge Leo E. Green Jr. said in his order requiring the mailbox rules be removed: “This is the slippery slope they [the Strongs] seek to level.”

(Source:Complete Article published January 23, 2017 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/in-a-community-of-million-dollar-homes-a-fight-over-a-500-mailbox-ends-in-court/2017/01/23). and the lawsuit was handled by Skipper Law LLC. Source: (http://www.skipperlawllc.com/Blog/2017/February/Skipper-Law-Wins-500-Mailbox-Case-Against-HOA-in.aspx).

This article highlights how difficult and costly it was for one homeowner to assert his right to limit the powers of an Association's Board of Directors so that its power did not interfere with his property rights. This particular lawsuit lasted several years, included mediation, and finally required ruling by a Court in the State of Washington. An out-of-state court ruling does not carry any weight in other states; but this was an important precedent!

Therefore, it is important for Boards of Directors of Associations and their members alike to try and communicate with each other, by considering the limits of each party's obligations in what boils down to avoiding a breach of contract. That is, an Association's member purchases a home or vacant residential lot and promises to abide by certain rules (R1, R2, R3). In return, the Association's Board of Directors agrees to provide services (S1,S2,S3), where S3 refers to the enforcement of the R1,R2 and R3. The intent of this contract allegedly is to preserve the physical condition and value of the privately owned property and the common areas within the Association. For example, in the Maryland "$500 mailbox case” the Court ruled that the homeowner did not agree to abide the Board's new Rule (R4) because he purchased his property before the R4 was adopted.

Unfortunately, a self-managed HOA's Board, that is responsible for making administrative and operational decisions, typically set out one of the in the Association's governing documents, named the "Bylaws", may not understand that changing the Association's Rules or Services may overstep its authority. For example, if the Board decided that homeowners must to abide by a new rule (R4),such as "the installation of bollard/recessed lighting on the edges of a driveway," this rule could be considered beyond the Board's authority. Similarly, if the Association's Board of Directors agreed to provide S1,S2 and S3, to every member of the Association, but later the Board decided later to drop S1 or add S4, this can also be interpreted as an unauthorized over-reach of the Board's authority.