The formalities of the law and due process are in place to protect the rights of individuals. When the procedures of due process are skirted it can strip a community association of the ability to enforce its rules or levy fines.
A condo association in Connecticut alleged that an owner violated the condominium’s declaration by replacing a large exterior window in the unit with a door. In March of 2009, the owner was notified that fines of $12 per day would be imposed for as long as the violation continued. The owner did not pay the fines.
In June 2009, the association filed suit to foreclose its lien for the fines against the owner’s unit. The owner argued that the fines violated the declaration and the association’s bylaws because the owner had not been offered a hearing.
The association admitted that it did not conduct a hearing prior to levying the fines, as they considered the hearing a formality. The trial judge determined that the fines were assessed validly and awarded the association the amount requested. The owner filed an appeal.
The appeals court concluded that providing an owner with an opportunity to be heard was expressly required by the Act and the condominium documents. While the appeals court agreed that administrative hearings are intended to be informal and conducted without having to adhere to the formal evidence rules observed by courts, the hearings still must be conducted in a fundamentally fair manner that does not violate due process rules.
The appeals court held that it was improper for the trial court to grant judgment to the association after learning that the owner had not been afforded a hearing. The appeals court sent the case back to the trial court with instructions for judgment to be rendered in favor of the owner.
This is a perfect example of a simple, avoidable mistake changing the outcome of a case. The owner should have had to pay fines if they violated the declaration, however the association disregarded due process and the association was found at fault. Don’t overlook the “formalities” of due process, even if you think the case is a slam dunk.