– By Laurie S. Poole, Esq. (originally published in January 1999)

The issue of how much a homeowners association can control the inside of an owner’s separate interest was raised in the recent appellate court decision, Cunningham v. Superior Court (1998) 67 Cal. App. 4th 743. The case began when the association inspected the owner’s unit after receiving complaints from other owners and its roofing contractor about excessive “debris.” After inspecting the interior of the unit on at least two occasions, the association filed a lawsuit based upon fire and safety hazards, seeking to have the owner clear clutter from inside his unit. The CC&Rs contained a provision which provided that owners must maintain the interiors of their residential units in a “clean, sanitary and attractive condition.”

Although housing and fire inspectors found no hazardous conditions on the property, the association continued to send letters to the owner requesting that the unit be cleared of clutter. Some of the association’s suggestions included that the owner remove “paper, cardboard boxes and books from the floor area around his bed and dresser” and that the owner remove outdated clothing “that has not been worn in the last five years.”

The owner, who was elderly and suffered from Hodgkin’s disease, sued the association claiming, among other things, that the association acted unreasonably by sending threatening letters seeking to have his personal belongings removed. The case against the association went to trial and the jury found that the association had acted unreasonably. Before deciding how much the association was responsible to pay for the owner’s damages, the trial judge granted a motion to have a new trial. In so doing, the trial judge indicated that if a jury continued to find the association responsible, he would continue to grant motions for new trials. The owner appealed.

The appellate court found that the trial judge had, on its own, found in favor of the association, regardless of what the jury had decided. In certain circumstances, a trial judge may make such a determination. However, in this case, the appellate court found that this determination was in error because the evidence supported a finding that the association had acted unreasonably.

In a scathing opinion, the court stated: “…it is virtually impossible to say that the association acted reasonably.” The court found that the provision of the CC&Rs that requires owners to maintain the interior of the unit does not mean that associations can dictate the amount of clutter in which a person chooses to live: “one old man’s piece of junk is another man’s objet d’art.” The court felt that the association’s suggestions to remove books from the floor and old clothing was “particularly galling.” Finally, the court stated that when the owner purchased his unit, he did not contemplate that the association would tell him to clean up his room and characterized the association’s actions as that of a “parent nagging an errant teenager.”

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the court also ordered that the case be re-assigned to another trial judge since this one had indicated he would continue to find in the association’s favor.

This case illustrates just how far one association went in attempting to control clutter inside a unit, and one court’s opinion against that type of control.