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Nahrstedt v. Lakeside Village Condominium Association, Inc.

    Brief Fact Summary. Nahrstedt was a resident of a common interest development in California who owned three cats. She kept them in her condo, though the development’s covenants, conditions and restrictions, (CC&Rs) prohibited it. The homeowners association exacted ongoing penalties against her for the continuing violation.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A recorded restriction on use imposed by a common interest development in California must be uniformly enforced against all residents of the development unless the restriction is unlawful or unreasonable.

    Facts. Nahrstedt (P) owned her condominium in Lakeside Village, a common interest development in Los Angeles County, with 530 units. It was overseen and the CC&Rs enforced by the Lakeside Village Condominium Association (D), of which Nahrstedt was also a member since she owned her condo. One of the CC&Rs prohibited keeping any animals in any of the units. Nahrstedt allegedly was ignorant of this clause when she bought her condo. She kept her three cats in her unit, but did not allow them to have the run of the development’s common areas. Once the homeowners association found out about the pets in her home, they issued monthly fines for her violation of the CC&Rs. She sued the homeowners association, seeking invalidation of already imposed fines and an injunction preventing future fines on this issue, and a declaration that the pet-keeping restriction was unreasonable if applied to pets kept exclusively in the home, without disturbing anyone else. The homeowners association moved for dismissal of her complaint on the ground that she had no stated claim upon which to base relief. The court accepted their motion. Nahrstedt appealed, and the intermediate appellate court reversed the verdict, holding that the recorded restriction on use needs to be evaluated as to reasonableness on a case by case basis. The case went to the state supreme court for review.

    Issue. Must a recorded restriction on use imposed by a common interest development in California be uniformly enforced against all residents of the development unless the restriction is unlawful or unreasonable?

    Held. (Kennard, J.) Yes. A recorded restriction on use imposed by a common interest development in California must be uniformly enforced against all residents of the development unless the restriction is unlawful or unreasonable. In a common interest development, homeowners exchange some freedom for the right to enforce restrictions on other homeowners to serve the common interest. These restrictions should be equitable or covenants running with the land. Section 1354(a) of the California Civil Code establishes a test for enforceability of a recorded use restriction. It imposes the need for enforcement depending on the reasonableness of the restrictions. Some states have reached similar rulings through the legal system. In Hidden Harbor Estates v. Basso,393 So.2d 637 (Fla. Ct. App. 1981) the Florida court of appeals ruled that a recorded declaration containing stated use restrictions is heavily presumed to be valid, even overruling some degree of unreasonableness. Only when restrictions are arbitrary or violative of fundamental rights or public policy should they be not enforced. In another case, involving pet restrictions, Noble v. Murphy, 612 N.E.2d 266 (Mass App. Ct. 1993), the above ruling was upheld. This Court also rules that recorded restrictions should not be enforced in case they conflict with constitutional rights or public policy, as in Shelley v. Kramer, 344 U.S. 1 (1948), which dealt with racial restriction, or when they are arbitrary or have no purpose to serve relating to the land.  In such situations, the harm caused by the violation of fundamental rights or public policy, or by arbitrary restrictions, is more than the compensatory benefit possibly derived from such restrictions. Section 1354(a) of the California Civil Code also codifies the same principles, which this court takes to mean that all recorded use restrictions are valid and enforceable if they are not arbitrary or do not violate fundamental constitutional rights or public policy, or impose disproportionate burdens. Thus homeowners can enforce common covenants without the fear of litigation. The court system will also benefit from not having to decide on the reasonableness of a covenant in the situation of a particular homeowner on a case-by-case basis. The homeowners in turn enjoy the assurance of having the common agreements uniformly enforced. In this case, the appellate court formed its verdict from two earlier opinions, Portola Hills Community Assn. v. James, 5 Cal. Rptr. 2d 580 (Cal. Ct. App. 1993) and Bernardo Villas Management Corp. v. Black, 235 Cal. Rptr. 509 (Cal.Ct. App. 1987), in both of which the courts failed to show deference in their review of the agreements at issue in those cases. Both these verdicts are not approved. The reasonableness or otherwise of a use restriction is not to be determined by the situation of a specific homeowner who has issue with the restriction, but by the entire common interest development. In this case, the court rules that the pet restriction of Lakeside Village is reasonable as it takes into account the generality of opinions in the homeowners association regarding health, cleanliness and noise issues associated with keeping pets. Nahrstedt has not complained of a disproportionate burden imposed by the restriction such that the legitimate benefits are insignificant, making the restriction unreasonable. Keeping pets in a condo is not a fundamental right, nor a public policy of deep import, nor a right under any California law, so that the restriction is not unreasonable or unlawful. The verdict is reversed and the case remanded.

    Dissent. (Arabian, J.) The majority opinion is technically correct, but applies a narrow understanding of the facts to the connection between the law and the spirit. The restriction on keeping pets in this case is a violation of Section 1354(a) of the California Civil Code. Its arbitrary and unreasonable nature does not fit within Section 1354(a) because it puts an inappropriately heavy burden on those pet owners who keep pets confined to their own homes, without disturbing other homeowners or their properties. This burden is greater than the quality of life gained by sacrificing pets in the development. The restriction makes the quality of social life even worse. The majority opinion is a simple unthinking acceptance of the dogma that the homeowners association knows best how to create health and happiness for all homeowners by uniform enforcement of all its CC&Rs. A better way would have been first to ask whether the burden of this restriction is the same as the low-level and impersonal regulations usually specified in this kind of restrictive agreement. Instead, the majority asks only whether the restriction being debated was recorded in the original declaration, and states that if so, it will be valid on every presumption unless it violates public policy. Thus every recorded use restriction is now sacrosanct, like the Ten Commandments, beyond debate. Another obstacle to the justness of today’s verdict is that being forced to avoid keeping pets even in one’s own home seriously impairs the American dream, which has always included being able to own and fully enjoy one’s own home. Courts should deliver verdicts with humanity, and be able to unite rather than divide people.

    Concurrence. N/A

    Discussion. Today this ruling seems obvious and the case easy to decide for all the reasons the majority opinion gave. Nahrstedt’s position would make homeowners associations very labile. The burden of having to deal with each case of this kind on an individual basis would increase the load on the judicial system which is already carrying too heavy a burden. Thus public policy dictates the position the majority opinion took. As a result of this case and others like it, homeowners today have the assurance that when they sign the CC&Rs of a common interest development, those regulations will be enforced uniformly and consistently.


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