It all started with Boo-Boo, Dockers and Tulip, Natore (Carol) Nahrstedt's three little cats.
The Culver City woman and her felines were the subject of a landmark legal case decided by the California state Supreme Court last year that reaffirmed the integrity of homeowners associations rules. The court ruled last summer that Nahrstedt could not keep her tabbies in a homeowners association that prohibits pets, even though the cats stayed indoors and did not venture into the common area of her Culver City condo association.
Nahrstedt's was the first case of its kind, challenging the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs;) that govern life in a homeowners association, to reach all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Nahrstedt is single and has no children. The cats are her family, says her attorney, Joel Tamraz. When she moved into the Lakeside Village condominiums in Culver City in January, 1988, Nahrstedt did not question her ability to bring Boo-Boo, Dockers and Tulip with her because she saw lots of cats there. There were cats on the walkways, in the bushes and in the windows of the condo units.
But the CC&Rs; at Lakeside Village prohibit pets, except for two fish in a bowl or two birds in a cage.
Nahrstedt says she did not read the CC&Rs; before moving into her condo. Her cats, she argued, stayed inside her condominium unit and did not annoy anyone else in the complex.
But shortly after she moved in, Nahrstedt started getting letters from the Lakeside association's board of directors. It seemed that somebody had seen her cats and ratted on her.
Get rid of the cats, the letters said, citing the CC&Rs; that Nahrstedt had agreed to abide by when she purchased the condo. Nahrstedt refused.
The homeowners association board began fining her. First it was $25 a month, then $50, then $100 and on up to $500 a month.
Still Nahrstedt would not forsake her felines, even though she claimed she was harassed, cursed and even forced to live without hot water for years while she battled the board.
That's when Tamraz came in.
"She came to me when the fines reached $500 a month. The dues regularly are $167--so she was being asked to pay triple or almost quadruple what she would normally pay," Tamraz said.
He filed a lawsuit against Lakeside Village on Nahrstedt's behalf, citing invasion of privacy and opposing the CC&Rs; as being ambiguous and unreasonable.
"I alleged that she could do whatever she wanted within her space as long as it didn't impinge upon the rights of her neighbors," Tamraz said. He pointed out that none of Nahrstedt's close neighbors complained about the cats.
"A person has a right--even a condo owner--to do what they like with their own property. That area within which you live--if you want to paint your walls purple or have a chartreuse rug--that's your thing as long as you don't offend anyone else," Tamraz said. "A little bit too much government, in my view, is offensive."
Nahrstedt's lawsuit went to court, where a trial judge agreed with the condominium board that Boo-Boo, Dockers and Tulip violated the CC&Rs.; The California Appeals Court, however, sided with Nahrstedt and her felines.
But the Supreme Court, with one dissent, ruled that if homeowners agree to abide by the CC&Rs;, then they must abide by them. Period. They did not discuss the rationality of the pet regulation or the privacy issue.
Several experts and the attorneys who defended Nahrstedt's condominium board applauded the decision.
John Paul Hanna, an attorney who specializes in common-interest development law, said the association had a right to restrict pets.
"That contract (signed when an owner buys into a homeowners association) ought to mean something. How can you allow someone to flagrantly violate the rules by saying they're indoor cats?
"By and large, people do have a right to set up their own communities with their own reasonable rules provided that the distinctions they make have some rationale behind them. If people prefer to live in a pet-free environment there's a strong school of theory that says they ought to be able to do so. If you want to keep a pet, then don't buy into one where people don't want pets."
After the Supreme Court ruling, a disappointed Nahrstedt and her cats moved out of the Lakeside condos. She and her attorney are still suing over the fines that she was assessed and over emotional distress she claims to have suffered. A settlement is being discussed on those issues, Tamraz said.