Vintage Condominiums Association, Inc. v. Richardson. (Lawyers Weekly No. 10-16-1196, 14 pp.) (Martha A. Geer, J.) Appealed from Union County Superior Court (W. Erwin Spainhour, J.) N.C. App. Unpub. Click here for the full text of the opinion.
Holding: The trial court did not err when it denied the defendants’ motion for Rule 11 sanctions against the plaintiffs and their counsel where the only issue was whether notice had been properly given for a homeowners’ association meeting. Nor did the trial court err by finding that the defendants had violated Rule 11 by filing the motion for Rule 11 sanctions.
Vintage Condominium Homeowners Association was incorporated in 2002. In 2006, the executive board was ousted and four new members, including defendant, were elected. Defendant was named chair of the board.
Defendant terminated the management company that handled the association’s business-affairs and appointed her father as business manager.
In 2007, condominium owners called a special meeting and ousted defendant and the new members. Through its attorney, the board challenged the validity of the owners’ meeting and actions. The owners stood down, ceding control to defendant.
The owners then sued defendant alleging that the 2006 board was invalid and disputing defendant’s control over the board. They included a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, alleging that defendant had attempted to control the association through the use of threats and intimidation.
They requested punitive damages, that a receiver be appointed to take control of the association’s finances, and that defendant be required to provide copies of all financial records relating to the association. Defendant answered and asserted a counterclaim for defamation.
The trial court granted a preliminary injunction and appointed a receiver. The receiver found that the association’s financial books had been well kept, updated and organized and that expenditures were supported by receipts or other documentation.
The receiver presided over a special meeting in which the board installed by the owners in 2007 was elected again.
Defendant moved for attorney’s fees, arguing that the request for the receiver’s appointment was frivolous, but that motion was denied. Defendant dismissed her counterclaims. The owners voluntarily dismissed the remainder of their claims.
Defendant moved for Rule 11 sanctions against the owners and their counsel. The trial court denied the motion and ruled that defendant had violated Rule 11 by bringing the motion. Defendant appealed.
Under Rule 11, the signer certifies that three distinct things are true: the pleading is (1) warranted by existing law or a good-faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law; (2) well-grounded in fact; and (3) not interposed for any improper purpose. A violation of any one of these requirements mandates the imposition of sanctions.
The dispositive question is whether a reasonable person in pleader’s position, after having read and studied the applicable law, would have concluded the pleading was warranted by existing law.
Defendant argued that the owners violated Rule 11 by alleging in their complaint that the 2007 meeting was duly noticed and convened, and that the 2007 board was properly elected. Defendant also questioned the validity of an affidavit submitted by one of the owners. Defendant argued that the owners, after conducting a reasonable inquiry, could not have reasonably believed that the 2007 election was legitimate.
The only issue regarding the propriety of the 2007 meeting was whether it was properly noticed. There is no dispute that notice was provided as set forth in the association’s bylaws. We hold that the claim that the board was duly elected is facially plausible.
After reading the statute and the bylaws, a person could reasonably conclude that the notice given by the unit owners was valid and that the 2007 board was duly elected. Based on our review of the record, we hold that the trial court properly determined that there was no basis for concluding that the complaint violated the factual sufficiency prong of Rule 11.
We also agree with the trial court that there is no basis for defendant’s claim that the owners and their attorney violated the improper-purpose prong of Rule 11. They were unhappy with the current leadership of the association and believed the current leadership had no authority to control the association, so they filed a complaint alleging injury caused by that unlawful assertion of authority.
We affirm the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion for sanctions.
Defendant also argued that the trial court erred in concluding that the revised motion for sanctions violated Rule 11. We have already concluded that the owners and their counsel did not violate Rule 11. That does not mean that defendant violated Rule 11 by alleging that the owners had no legal or factual basis to support their claim.
But defendant’s motion for sanctions went well beyond the issue addressed on appeal. Since defendant has not demonstrated that the trial court’s findings of fact were not supported and since those findings support the trial court’s determination that defendant violated Rule 11 in filing the motion for sanctions, we affirm the trial court’s order.