On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-738-00.
Before Judges Skillman, Coburn and C.S. Fisher.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
In this appeal, we are required to resolve the following matters of first impression in this State: (a) whether a homeowners association, having previously ceded jurisdiction of its streets to a municipality, retains the authority to enforce its own parking regulations, (b) whether such an association's board of directors exceeds its authority to conduct elections when it issues a"candidate audit" advising unit owners which of the candidates were members in"good standing," and (c) whether, when asserting a defamation claim, a candidate for election to an association's board of directors should be considered a"public figure." For the following reasons, we answer these questions in the affirmative.
Plaintiff Joseph Verna (plaintiff), and his wife, are owners of a townhouse in The Links At Valleybrook Neighborhood Association, Inc. (the association), a planned unit development located in Gloucester Township. The association was formed as a not-for-profit corporation pursuant to N.J.S.A. 15A:1-1 to 16-2.
By way of complaint,*fn1 and a later amended complaint, plaintiff asserted that (1) the association was actively attempting to enforce an invalid regulation concerning the parking of his vehicle on the association's streets and in his driveway, (2) the association's board of directors acted beyond its authority when it issued a"candidate audit" for a board election, (3) he was defamed by the candidate audit, and (4) he was wrongfully removed from the association's architectural advisory committee. The association filed a counterclaim, seeking (1) an injunction barring plaintiff from parking his vehicle on association property, (2) the collection of plaintiff's allegedly outstanding parking fines, (3) compensatory and punitive damages for an alleged defamation, and (4) an award of attorneys' fees. The parties engaged in extensive discovery and filed numerous substantive motions. As is relevant to this appeal, the trial judge granted the association's motion for partial summary judgment declaring the parking regulations enforceable, and a later motion for partial summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's defamation claims. At trial, the judge rejected, pursuant to R. 4:37-2(b), plaintiff's argument that the association should be estopped from attempting to prevent him from parking his vehicle on the association's streets. After the association presented its witnesses, the trial judge determined, as a matter of law, that the board had the inherent power to issue the candidate audit. After the trial was concluded, the judge entered orders which permanently enjoined plaintiff from parking his vehicle on association property and denied the association's request for an award of attorneys' fees.
Plaintiff appealed, raising the following arguments:
I. THE LOWER COURT'S DECISION THAT THE ASSOCIATION'S PARKING REGULATIONS APPLY TO THE PUBLIC ROADWAYS WITHIN THE [ASSOCIATION] SHOULD BE REVERSED.
II. THE ASSOCIATION'S PARKING RESTRICTIONS AS THEY APPLY TO BOTH ON-STREET AND OFF STREET PARKING ARE UNENFORCEABLE.
III. THE RESTRICTIONS IN QUESTION ARE ALSO UNENFORCEABLE BECAUSE AS WRITTEN THE RESTRICTIONS FAIL TO MEET CERTAIN CONSTITUTIONAL STANDARDS.
IV. FINES IMPOSED BY THE ASSOCIATION ARE VOID AND UNCOLLECTIBLE BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO BASIS IN THE DECLARATION OF COVENANTS, EASEMENTS AND RESTRICTIONS.
V. THE RESTRICTIONS AS APPLIED IN THIS MATTER ARE UNENFORCEABLE DUE TO THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUITABLE ESTOPPEL.
VI. THE ASSOCIATION BREACHED ITS FIDUCIARY DUTY TO [PLAINTIFFS] WHEN IT ISSUED THE CANDIDATE AUDIT.
VII. THE TRIAL COURT'S DISMISSAL OF THE DEFAMATION CLAIMS CONTAINED IN COUNTS II AND [III] OF PLAINTIFFS' COMPLAINT SHOULD BE REVERSED.
VIII. DISMISSAL OF PLAINTIFFS' CLAIM FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AS PART OF THEIR CLAIM FOR DAMAGES WAS UNSUPPORTED BY LEGAL AUTHORITY AND SHOULD BE REVERSED.
The association filed a cross-appeal, raising a single issue:
I. THE TRIAL COURT'S DENIAL OF THE ASSOCIATION'S APPLICATION FOR ATTORNEY FEES AND COSTS SHOULD BE REVERSED.
After careful review of the briefs and the record on appeal, we conclude that the arguments set forth by plaintiff in Points III, V, and VIII are clearly without merit and do not warrant discussion, R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E), and that the argument in Point IV was rendered moot by the association's voluntary withdrawal of its claim for the collection of fines. For reasons more fully explained hereafter, we agree with the association that it is empowered to regulate the parking of vehicles on association property but will vacate the permanent injunction entered in its favor. We reject the association's argument that it was entitled to issue the candidate audit; however, we also reject plaintiff's claim to a remedy for that unauthorized action. In addition, we agree with the trial judge's determination that plaintiff should be viewed as a limited purpose public figure by seeking election to the board of directors and, thus, affirm the dismissal of his defamation claim. We lastly affirm the denial of the association's claim for attorneys' fees and costs.
Plaintiff and his wife purchased a townhouse in the association in 1996. Their townhouse is situated on LaCosta Drive which, like the other roadways in the association, was dedicated to Gloucester Township.
Plaintiff is a self-employed electrician. For business purposes, at the times relevant to this action, plaintiff utilized a red Ford Econoline 150 Model van, the frequent appearance of which troubled the association and triggered this convoluted lawsuit. The association's governing documents state that"[n]o vehicles larger than a van and no commercial vehicle... except those vehicles temporarily on the property for the purpose of servicing the Property itself or one of the Units, shall be permitted on or to be parked upon the Property without the prior written consent of the Board of Directors." The association claimed that this provision prohibited plaintiff from parking the van in his driveway.
After extended discussions and conflict, plaintiff stopped leaving the van in his driveway. Plaintiff, however, occasionally parked the van on LaCosta Drive in front of his townhouse. The association claimed this was also prohibited, relying upon the ...