With the quarantine forcing us all to spend more time at home, many associations have likely experienced a higher-than-normal volume of nuisance complaints from members. Though association enforcement of its nuisance provisions may seem like a catch-all saving grace answer to handle those annoying neighbors, not all non-discriminatory behavior rise to a level that the association should get involved. We addressed discriminatory behavior between neighbors in this article.
Many things can rise to the level of a nuisance – noise, smells, light, etc. – but there is a difference between what type of annoyance an association can act against and what a court deem actionable. Though, as we will see, an association generally has fewer guidelines than a court does. The manner in which courts look at nuisance complaints can help an association make administering its own nuisance review easier and more consistent.
In October last year, 2020, Florida’s First District Court of Appeals gave some clarification to the otherwise very broad definition in Roebuck v. Sills. This case addresses two types of nuisance complaints, a loud pool pump and bright exterior lighting, that affected Mr. Roebuck’s ability to sleep and enjoy his home.
Legally, neighbors “have a common law duty not to interfere with, or to render each other unsafe or insecure in life or in the use of their property.” However, “ordinary. . . annoyances” will not generally be enough for the court to grant an aggrieved party relief. Additionally, there is “no exact formula” to determine at what point a person’s actions are severe enough to grant the relief sought. Therefore, these types of cases are heavily fact based, focusing on details like duration and severity.
Though the Roebuck case did not rest on an interpretation of the association’s nuisance provision, the Court briefly addressed the declaration which provided that:
“Nothing shall be done or maintained on any Lot or Common Property which may be or become an annoyance or nuisance to any other Lot in the vicinity thereof or to its occupants, or to the Common Property.”
The Court determined that though the language did not define annoyance nor nuisance, it “empower[ed] the Board of Directors alone to resolve community nuisance-related disputes.” This interpretation gives associations a lot of leeway in determining what can be considered a severe enough dispute to address through its enforcement process.
However, with so much leeway, associations must understand that their decisions are subject to reasonable, non-arbitrary or non-discriminatory standards. Fighting these types of claims can be exceedingly long and very expensive. Therefore, providing some structure for boards of directors, architectural committees, or other individuals tasked with addressing these complaints is very important.
Having a clear understanding of what the association will consider an annoyance sufficient to be considered an “enforceable nuisance,” a number of factors should be considered. For example, how pervasive is the annoyance? Does it affect one unit, or multiple? How persistent is the annoyance? Does it happen monthly, weekly, daily, hourly? Is there a compromise that can be reached to reduce the annoyance, or is it a behavior so severe that the only reasonable path forward is to require that it cease completely?
Associations should review their nuisance provisions to determine if the language is broad enough to address the various forms nuisances can take. To cover most issues, while still protecting the association, it may be advisable to revise existing provisions. This revision may take the form of an amendment to the declaration that provides a specific definition or the enactment of rules and regulations that provide guidelines enacting reasonable time constraints or prohibiting certain behaviors all together.
Nuisances can be subjective and are almost impossible to eliminate all together. However, with consideration and thoughtful planning, an association can ensure that it is protecting itself from liability while addressing complaints in an effective and equitable manner. Once standard guidance is in place, everyone will have a better understanding of neighborhood expectations and, hopefully, make the community a happier place to hunker down.