Q&A

HOA seeks relief from attorney's dirty tricks, inflated billing

HOA's lawyer creates 'projects' for himself just to bill his client. What to do?

Question: I'm a director at my homeowner association. It's painful to admit, but the board made a terrible mistake in the attorney we hired. Our management company representative was taking a real estate class where another attorney from his firm was soliciting business for him. Without board knowledge or consent, the management representative turned over all our association files and information. Before realizing what had happened we received a horrendous bill for his "review of association operations."

Soon we learned of his agenda and that he's not a nice person. He likes to stick it to people, likes to hurt people, and he enjoys power and dirty tricks. He creates "projects" for himself for the sole purpose of generating invoices for us to pay.

Without board knowledge and consent, he made dozens of unnecessary phone calls and charged us for them. Numerous times he took it upon himself to call the city attorney, claiming it was on the board's behalf, and did the same thing when he called insurance companies. Our association was billed thousands of dollars just for his bloviating phone calls. Asked whether he had filed the construction defect lawsuit we'd been waiting for, he said he'd "already filed it." Later, we learned he had never filed it.

He palms all his work off to his "associates." When the board received a draft of another lawsuit we were going to file, we found so many things wrong in the documents we sent it back to him. He charged us to fix problems he caused in the first place. He has a sloppy law firm that doesn't read documents; they look at the front page, skim or thumb through pages like a deck of cards and bill us for that.

The board voted to fire him but he shows up uninvited at every meeting, making us uncomfortable conducting business and even billing us for his attendance. How can we get rid of this guy?

Answer: Sticking it to people, abusing power and playing dirty tricks are not part of the lawful practice of law. Looking at the face of legal documents and skimming pages with the belief that one can glean their content by diffusion defies logic. The board must take an unyielding stance with the law firm and management company. Both are vendors that must obey your directions, withdraw or be terminated because neither is authorized to unilaterally take action without board consent. Call and write the city attorney and insurance companies, putting them on notice that this attorney no longer represents your association.

It's your association. It's your meeting. Eject anyone who is not invited, including that attorney. If meetings are held on association property, the lawyer is trespassing if he stays after being asked to leave. You can and should call the police. Do not pay any invoice for his unwanted presence; return it to him with an explanation.

Lawyers have ethical duties and professional responsibilities they must comply with in regard to dealing with and retaining clients. Pursuant to Business and Professions Code Section 6148, if it is reasonably foreseeable that total expense to a client will exceed $1,000, "the contract for services in the case shall be in writing." That same code section says that fees and rates must be included in the written agreement, and that bills must clearly state how they are calculated and what services were performed. A global, generic invoice does not comport with the statute. The attorney's failure to meet these obligations makes his agreement for services voidable. He can collect only a "reasonable fee." That fee does not include payment for services that were unnecessary or unauthorized.

However, you're not stuck with the terrible mistake imposed upon your association. Your board voted to fire the attorney; write him a letter to that effect and dispute any unsubstantiated and unreasonable charges, even if they have already been paid. If your management company approved charges without board authorization, it shares in the responsibility for reimbursement.

Zachary Levine, partner at Wolk & Levine, a business and intellectual property law firm, co-wrote this column. Vanitzian is an arbitrator and mediator. Send questions to Donie Vanitzian JD, P.O. Box 10490, Marina del Rey, CA 90295 or noexit@mindspring.com.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
88°