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Q&A: Owners who help out around their complex can pose liability risks for an HOA

Owners who help out around their complex can pose liability risks for an HOA
Owners who help out around their complex can pose liability risks for an HOA.
(Karen Fox / Getty Images)

Question: We’re a small association of 35 units. For decades, owners volunteered to help around the complex. There is a woman who likes to pull weeds and clean the pool furniture, another that sweeps walkways and picks up debris, and a man who enjoys replacing lightbulbs and reporting broken light fixtures to the maintenance director. These are unpaid volunteers, many of whom are retired and really enjoy doing these types of things.

These owners and others who have joined them perform a variety of simple, non-invasive tasks that wouldn’t subject them or the association to injuries. Now a new board with different ideas about how our complex should be run served these volunteers with nasty letters from legal counsel demanding that they “cease and desist” their volunteer activities. The tone of these communications and this board’s hard-line approach to volunteers is unnerving. Volunteers and owners alike are insulted.

Volunteers were proud of their contributions. The simple tasks they performed saved all of us time and money, and made the place look better. These volunteers brought all of us together working for the greater good. But the latest attorney letter demands that these owner-volunteers provide proof of insurance for their acts and indemnification for the association! It also threatens lawsuits. This is ridiculous and very costly. Tempers are boiling over. How do we handle this?

Answer: It is a good thing when owners show motivation and commitment by volunteering in their community. Your board should find ways to embrace the volunteers’ energy and good will.

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Unfortunately, homeowner associations are a “structured environment” where most everything, including operations and maintenance obligations, are supposed to be planned in advance. Part of those board obligations include limiting liability for all titleholders.

This means the board should be managing the activities of any individual performing services for the association. That includes managing the volunteers. However, when dealing with owners who are trying to be helpful, an aggressive or threatening tone is counterproductive and unnecessary.

Owners who occasionally pick up trash on walks or who report a burned-out lightbulb do so in the best interest of the community and themselves. This casual assistance does not create a specific legal relationship or otherwise endanger the association. Owner involvement like this should be encouraged — not discouraged.

However, those types of relationships have the potential to turn into a liability for the association. When an otherwise helpful owner continuously performs services for the association, whether or not they were asked or paid, and the board knowingly accepts those services, a legal relationship is created.

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That relationship may place the board and the association in a difficult situation as the board is required to compensate its agents and may be responsible for their negligence or personal injury while performing duties.

But, instead of instituting an outright ban, all these issues should be discussed at an open meeting where owners can participate. The board should consider the benefits of volunteerism, then weigh the totality of the circumstances when setting association rules.

One option is to create guidelines that identify tasks suitable for volunteers. Then the board can consider establishing committees operated by volunteers to carry out those tasks. If specific volunteers are empowered by the association to act in certain roles they may even be eligible for coverage under the association’s existing insurance policies.

Owner-volunteers who help around the complex can be great for the association’s morale. They also help reduce operational costs, which in turn may reduce monthly dues.

This can be a good thing for everyone.

Zachary Levine, a 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


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