Homeowner associations (HOAs) are intended to promote quality of life in neighborhoods and subdivisions. By overseeing common property, providing amenities for the community, and creating and enforcing rules, these governing bodies are supposed to ensure a peaceful, enjoyable living experience for the residents of the community.
Of course, anyone who has ever lived in a neighborhood governed by an HOA realizes that maintaining community standards sometimes means limiting the freedom of homeowners to do whatever they wish with their property. You probably can’t paint your house purple, or let your lawn grow a foot high, if you live within an HOA community. But when does a HOA’s interference with a homeowner’s property rights constitute harassment?
Our office sometimes receives inquiries about “HOA harassment,” but this is unfortunately not a true cause of action in Georgia, at least from a legal standpoint. Instead, what might be called HOA harassment would probably be better addressed under the law of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sometimes discrimination.
Cases involving HOAs are particularly difficult for the homeowners themselves. Unlike most types of lawsuits, a suit against your HOA involves your neighbors and community, and can make what should be your sanctuary—your home—a source of anxiety and stress.
What’s worse, intentional infliction of emotional distress cases against an HOA are almost impossible to win. A recent Georgia case, Plantation at Bay Creek Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Glasier, 349 Ga. App. 203, 825 S.E.2d 542 (2019), illustrates this. In the Glasier case, Mr. and Mrs. Glasier sued their homeowners’ association in connection with a disputed pedestrian easement. Among their other claims, most of which were upheld, the Glasiers claimed intentional infliction of emotional distress on the part of the HOA.
The Glasiers claimed that the HOA’s encouragement of members to use a non-existent easement across their property had led to “verbal harassment, trespass, dumping of trash, theft, and an interruption of their peace and enjoyment of (their) property to an extreme and outrageous level.”
The Georgia Court of Appeals denied this claim, holding that it did not meet the four elements of a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress:
In the Glasier case, the Georgia Court of Appeals said that even assuming that the HOA had encouraged the trespass on the Glasiers’ property and done the other things the Glasiers alleged (stealing a sign, having an HOA member sit outside the home for hours), the conduct did not rise to the level of being extreme and outrageous. Nor, the court stated, did the Glasiers offer evidence that their emotional distress was severe.
HOAs may take actions that are inconvenient, upsetting, or irksome to homeowners. But the unfortunate reality is that in most cases, Georgia courts will find that the actions were not extreme enough, or the damage severe enough, to constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress.
If you feel that you are being harassed either by your HOA, or by neighbors with the HOA’s knowledge, you may feel that there is little you can do to stop it, but that is not necessarily true. Certain types of conduct must be addressed by HOAs under federal law, and HOAs can be held liable for the discriminatory acts of others, also known as third-party liability.
As of October 14, 2016, HOA boards of directors are required to address members’ claims of harassment on certain grounds. These include:
Unfortunately, there has been an uptick in incidents of harassment on these bases in recent years. Federal regulations, specifically CFR §100.7(a)(1)(iii) deal with liability for discriminatory housing practices, including harassment by other residents, board members, managers, and vendors. Under the law, HOA boards must promptly act to investigate, and put an end to, any such harassment.
If a resident is being harassed, the HOA can be held liable if the harassment was based on one of the grounds above; the HOA knew or should have known of the harassment; the HOA had the power to stop the harassment; and the HOA failed to do so.
In addition to federal law, Georgia’s Fair Housing Act prohibits harassment of homeowners. Section 8-3-222 states:
“It shall be unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of such person's having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of such person's having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by this article.”
In other words, if an individual has rights protected by the Georgia Fair Housing Act, and is using and enjoying their property within those rights, they must not be threatened or intimidated. If you have more questions about harassment in your neighborhood or whether you have a cause of action under Georgia or federal law, or if you have an issue with your HOA, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.