[ Blog/News ]
Coronavirus Introduces New Legal Considerations for Common-Interest Communities
By Allison Peryea, Esq.
The novel coronavirus compelled communities to confront a number of new challenges with legal implications. The overarching challenge has been for an association to figure out its role in a completely new type of environment. While associations always have had to be mindful about making sure people are safe in the common areas, the reality of this pandemic is that associations have had to explore the scope of their authority to preserve that safety. This can involve questions about who to let into shared-access buildings, and what information to report when a resident tests positive for the illness. (The general rule is for the association to exercise its right to regulate the common areas using its reasonable discretion, while staying mindful of people’s privacy considerations.)
Other considerations have involved concerns about liability exposure when an association decides to—or declines to—get involved in efforts to bring neighbors together to provide support for each other, whether it is to pick up prescriptions or lend exercise equipment. The general rule in that context is that an association should be comfortable with relaying helpful information among neighbors, but that associations should be wary about serving as the “center of command” for these sorts of efforts.
“Stay Home, Stay Healthy” Order Considerations
A third issue involves the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. A question arises about an association’s right or duty to enforce the terms of the order—for example, if association management sees people gathering in recreational areas in violation of the order. The general rule in that case is that an association is not responsible for enforcing the order—but it can take steps that dovetail with the order with respect to keeping the common areas safe. This could include, for example, requiring people to stand at least six feet away from the concierge.
The question of enforcement of the order does come up with respect to construction projects. While many construction projects are on hold, some are ongoing. It is up to each association to determine whether an ongoing construction project presents an unreasonable danger to residents in the current public-health situation. For instance, it may be appropriate to hold off on projects involve likely contact between workers and residents with immune-system concerns.
Associations & Board Meeting Considerations
A final issue that many communities have faced concerns association and board meetings. Fortunately, today’s technology has facilitated face-to-face meetings over the phone and computer with programs such as Skype and Zoom. The question has arisen however whether Boards and owners have the legal right to hold meetings and take action without an in-person meeting.
The good news is that most communities have the legal right to conduct board and owner meetings over the phone or by computer so long as the means of meeting allows real-time communication. Accordingly, meetings and business may not usually be conducted by email—except that boards may be able to conduct business by email if there is unanimous approval of the action. Communities also have the option of participation through proxies or (depending on the language of the governing documents) voting by mail or email.
Communities may need to get creative if there is a desire to keep votes confidential during a Zoom meeting or teleconference. One option to consider for communities that do not allow for voting by email is to have owners email their vote to the manager and then have the manager have the owner verbally confirm that the emailed vote is their intended vote during the meeting.
Our New Reality
While likely few of us expected that we would ever be in a situation like the current one, this new reality has taught us a lot about the limitations of our governing documents and also creative ways to keep operating and serving owners and communities. In the future, consider working with your association counsel to amend your governing documents to help your community better navigate unusual situations like the one we are currently facing together.
By Allison Peryea, Esq.
Allison Peryea, Esq. is a partner at Leahy Fjelstad Peryea. She has worked in the community association industry for eight years. Her practice focuses on dispute resolution including litigation, and general counsel. She is a longtime member of the WSCAI Communications Committee and a former editor of the WSCAI Journal.