NO, RODNEY, WE CAN’T JUST GET ALONG
From California, the land of pleasant living… we take you to a war zone. Compton? South LA? No, it’s the City of Rolling Hills, California, perched on the Rancho Palos Verde peninsula, a place where poverty – which includes anyone driving a vehicle worth less than a hundred grand – appears to have been banned.
Remember Rodney? Decades before George Floyd and #Blacklivesmatter, Rodney King was the poster child for police brutality against minorities, or – if you roll this way – he was the man who should have known better than to be driving around after dark while engaged in being black. After some of the police officers involved in his beating were acquitted, rioting ensued. Rodney’s plaintive plea for peace, which went viral before going viral became fashionable, asked, “can we all get along?”
Amid its 23 miles of horse trails, the 690 homes, and the 26 miles of roads, the people in Rolling Hills apparently cannot. The Fullers made it a habit to complain about the Murrells’ trees because it spoiled their view (something people on Rodney’s side of town probably didn’t worry much about). The Murrells kept trying to get along, acceding to trim job after trim job, until they had finally had enough. But they didn’t sue the Fullers. Instead, they sued the Rolling Hills board of directors, and specifically Donald Crocker, for having caved in to years and years of the Fullers’ fulminations about the trees.
Naturally, Mr. Crocker, who was a volunteer board member, didn’t much like being sued. After all, he said, he was just doing his job. And the Court agreed. In California, as is the case in many places, directors of corporations, for-profit and not-for-profit alike, are protected by a “business judgment rule.” The rules shields directors from liability when they have acted in good faith, haven’t engaged in self-dealing, and have acted on an informed basis. (Note: the “business judgment rule” varies from state to state, and can be rather nuanced. You should not assume that the application of the “business judgment rule” in this case represents what would happen in your own state).
Besides, the Court said, the Murrells shouldn’t be allowed to benefit after leading the Board and everyone else to believe that year after year they were agreeing – however reluctantly – to the tree trimming, and only when they reached the breaking point, did they decide to sue for everything that had ever happened.
There are a couple of morals here. One is that if you just try to get along, your efforts to do so “can and will be used against you in a court of law,” as Sgt. Joe Friday liked to tell defendants. The second, and more basic moral, sadly enough, is that turning the other cheek in Rolling Hills is just an invitation to your neighbor to smite you on that one, too.
Sorry, Rodney. Guess we can’t “just get along.” That’s why there are lawyers and courts.
Murrell v. Crocker, 2007 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5321, 2007 WL 1839478 (Cal. App. 2 Dist., June 28, 2007). The Murrells and Fullers are neighbors in Rolling Hills, California. They are members of the Rolling Hills Community Association, a nonprofit cooperative corporation governed by a five-member board of directors, one of whom is Mr. Crocker.
A governing document called the CC&R sets out the rights and obligations among the RHCA, the Murrells and the Fullers. According to the CC&R, in order to improve the view and to protect adjoining property, the RHCA has the authority to cut back or trim trees and shrubs on a member’s property. The RHCA also has a 10-foot wide easement along the boundary of each lot in which it has the right to remove trees or shrubs.
In 1997, the RHCA passed a resolution establishing procedures for maintaining and improving views. At that time, the Fullers demanded that the Murrells remove foliage to create a view for the Fullers. To be good neighbors and to avoid a dispute, the Murrells did so. In 2000, the Fullers brought a view complaint to the RHCA, which “caused the removal” of five trees and the trimming of an additional 12 trees on the Murrell property.
In 2002, the Board adopted yet another resolution, which contained more detailed procedures to maintain and improve views.
The next year, the Fullers submitted a second view complaint to the RHCA, which recommended that two of the Murrells’ trees be trimmed. The Murrells did so, but the Fullers complained that the trees were not trimmed enough, and in 2004 the Board ordered that a pine in the RHCA easement be removed and that other trees not on the easement be severely trimmed.
Finally, the Murrells had had enough. They sued Crocker and the RHCA Board for taking actions inconsistent with their fiduciary duties and the CC&Rs, including failing or refusing to inform other Board members that the CC&Rs did not permit the removal of trees or other plantings from the portion of the Murrells’ property outside of the easement; adopting resolutions inconsistent with the powers granted to the RHCA under the CC&Rs; letting the Fullers pretty much call the shots, and trimming of trees so that the trees would not grow back for three or four years.
Crocker moved for summary judgment on the grounds that he had no individual liability to the Murrells, and that the claims in the complaint were specious. He complained that the first view complaint was resolved by an agreement between the Murrells and the Fullers after meetings with the Committee and an arborist. He argued the Murrells had agreed or acquiesced to almost all of the trimming. Although George Murrell denied any such agreement, he felt that because the Committee and the Board had a negative attitude toward him and his wife, he “had no choice but to play along with the concept that some agreement had been reached as the Association Board and View Committee were claiming.” His wife said she had been trying to “avoid a confrontation in the hope that the … Board would, in the end, make some effort to protect some aspect of our privacy.”
The trial court dismissed Crocker as a party. The Murrells appealed.
Held: Crocker was dismissed as a party. The Court noted that under California law, directors of nonprofit corporations, such as a homeowners’ association, are fiduciaries who are required to exercise their powers in accordance with the duties imposed by the Corporations Code. A director fulfills his duty to a member of the association by strictly enforcing the provisions of the CC&Rs but has no fiduciary duty to exercise his discretion one way or the other with regard to a member so long as the director’s conduct conforms to the standard set out in § 7231 of the Corporations Code.
That section of the law sets out the standard of care for directors of nonprofit corporations, known as “California’s statutory business judgment rule,” providing that a “director shall perform the duties of a director … in good faith, in a manner such director believes to be in the best interests of the corporation and with such care, including reasonable inquiry, as an ordinarily prudent person in a like position would use in similar circumstances.” In performing such duties, a director “shall be entitled to rely on information, opinions, reports or statements … prepared or presented by … one or more officers or employees of the corporation whom the director believes to be reliable and competent in the matters presented; counsel … or a committee of the board upon which the director does not serve … so long as, in any such case, the director acts in good faith, after reasonable inquiry when the need therefore is indicated by the circumstances and without knowledge that would cause such reliance to be unwarranted.” A person who performs the duties of a director according to the rule has no liability based upon any alleged failure to discharge his or her obligations as a director.
Here, Crocker provided a declaration that he performed his duties in connection with both view complaints in good faith and with due care within the meaning of the rule, and the Murrells had no evidence to the contrary. The Court found that Crocker’s only involvement with the Murrells or the Fullers has been in public meetings of the RHCA or in officially sanctioned trips to their property, that he has no personal relationship with either the Murrells or the Fullers and had no personal interest in the outcome of their dispute, that Crocker was not the “primary driving force” behind the alleged improper treatment of the Murrells, that the votes were unanimous in all Board actions regarding the Murrells and the Fullers, and that he did not knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth take any action, or encourage any other Board member, to take any action inconsistent with a Board member’s fiduciary duties or the CC&Rs.
The Court also noted that the Murrells had admitted that they engaged in conduct leading Crocker and the RHCA to believe that the Fullers and the Murrells had come to agreements involving the removal and trimming of the trees. The Court held that because there was no reason for Crocker to suspect that the Murrells were laboring under any mistake as to their legal rights, there was no duty for him to make any disclosures on the point. Any unexpressed position on the part of the Murrells concerning the view complaints did not, the Court said, create an issue of fact as to Crocker’s good faith compliance with his duties.
– Tom Root