WALDORF, Md. — Disputes between homeowners and their condo or homeowners association aren’t uncommon, but a Maryland woman said her board took it too far.
The disagreement involved a fence and its boundaries. And while the fence cost around $8,000 to construct, the litigation that followed amounted to nearly $40,000.
“This dispute started in like 2017,” said Betty Hooker, who lives in the Autumn Hills community in Waldorf, Md.
Hooker obtained permission from the Autumn Hills Homeowners Association to construct a fence in her backyard, but in March 2018, the Association told her the fence was encroaching on the community’s common area and forest conservation easement, a wooded area behind Hooker’s home.
“Exactly 8 inches by his measurement,” Hooker recalled the HOA president telling her.
A few months later, the HOA sent a letter letting her know the Association would take legal action if the fence isn’t moved.
Hooker said she obtained an estimate and went back and forth with the HOA on who would pay for it. Then, the HOA filed a complaint in Charles County Circuit Court in March 2019 asserting the fence was still encroaching and they're seeking a fine of $25 per day dating back to November 2018, which at the time was around $3,500, plus costs and attorneys' fees.
At the hearing in the fall of 2019, Hooker represented herself.
“I felt like it was a frivolous case, and the judge would hear me,” said Hooker.
But she lost.
Immediately after, the Hookers moved their fence within the boundaries established by a survey company they hired, but the HOA contended the fence still wasn’t in compliance. And in April 2021, they were back in court where Judge Donine Carrington-Martin ordered the Hookers to pay $22,200 in fines and nearly $17,600 in attorneys' fees and court costs.
“Devastating. Mentally, emotionally, and financially,” said Hooker. “When I heard the ruling from the judge, it was just unbelievable. I immediately got up and left the courtroom.”
Following the judgment, the Hookers sought legal help to file an appeal.
“I believe it was around the time the warrant had been issued for the Sheriff to come and try to seize their house,” said Jessica Blumberg of Costello PC, who represented the Hookers in their appeal.
On January 7, 2022, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (COSA) heard the case.
“Instead of helping the appellants, the HOA doggedly pursued litigation against them racking up attorneys' fees and by the end of this case, were pursuing fines and fees for over a year for encroachments of under one inch in one corner of the property,” Blumberg argued in court.
“You’re saying the whole dispute is over an inch?” asked Judge Melanie Shaw Geter of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
“Yes, at the end of this case, the dispute was over an inch, less than an inch your honor,” Blumberg responded.
“It only matters that they are encroaching, and if they are encroaching, they are encroaching,” Scott Silverman, the attorney representing the HOA, said in response to questions about the one-inch encroachment.
In April 2022, COSA ruled that the HOA did not act in accordance with its governing document.
“We observe that the complaint states that several notices were sent to appellants, but none met the requirements outlined in the Declaration. We note further that the complaint states that fines would be incurred beginning November 1, 2018, but the HOA President testified the beginning date was October 4, 2018. We conclude that the HOA violated the contractual tenants of the Covenant Declaration and the fines were improperly assessed. As a result, the court abused its discretion in awarding fines,” the judges wrote in their opinion.
“The declarations for the HOA say very clearly different notices that homeowners should get and the due process they deserve before any further steps happen against them and that was not followed here,” said Blumberg. “So, the case has been completely reversed and the Hookers, all the fines have been taken away, all the attorneys' fees they will owe to the HOA are taken away and actually they were awarded costs.”
WMAR tried speaking with HOA President William Henderson about the decision. The attorney for the Association said no one was available for comment at the time.
A few days later, Sofastaii knocked on Henderson’s door to see if he was available. No one answered, but the HOA attorney sent the statement below.
"The HOA Board in good faith pursued the matter to fulfill their duty to enforce the community covenants. The HOA was naturally disappointed with the outcome of the appeals case. However, the HOA respects the decision of the COSA and is complying with its Mandate."
“I feel somewhat whole, but not totally whole because I’ve been under a lot of stress,” Hooker said.
Resolving HOA disputes
When asked if there’s anything homeowners can do to stop HOA disputes from spiraling, Blumberg responded, “If they just go back to their governing documents, there’s a lot of due process already in those."
These bylaws detail how the association is run including rules, voting rights, and procedures.
“A six-hour training session for Boards, 'know your rights' leaflet to homeowners, something that simple could help a lot,” said Blumberg.
Blumberg added that lawyers can also help by settling the issue before it goes to court.
This article was written by Mallory Sofastaii for WMAR.