On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cape May County, Docket No. L-493-10.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued December 20, 2011 -
Before Judges Carchman,*fn1 Fisher and Baxter.
The opinion of the court was delivered by BAXTER, J.A.D.
Defendants Pat Haffert and Terry Downey appeal from a January 21, 2011 Law Division order that granted the summary judgment motion of plaintiff Bell Tower Condominium Association (Association), thereby entering judgment against defendants in the sum of $22,400. The judgment in the Association's favor resulted from defendants' refusal to pay their portion of a special assessment imposed by the Association's Board of Trustees (Board) for various repairs and improvements to the condominium premises. Defendants' refusal to pay stemmed from objections to the Association's decision-making process concerning the special assessment.
A portion of the Condominium Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 46:8B-1 to -38, requires condominium associations to establish a "fair and efficient procedure for the resolution of housing-related disputes" between individual unit owners and the association, or between unit owners, "as an alternative to litigation." See N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14(k). Nonetheless, the Act does not define the term "housing-related disputes" contained in N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14(k). Because the long-established public policy of this State favors alternative dispute resolution, and because the Legislature chose expansive and unconditional language when it required the arbitration of "housing-related disputes" when requested by a party, we construe the term broadly. We hold that the term "housing-related disputes" refers to any dispute arising directly from the condominium relationship. As such, the dispute between the Association and defendants was a housing-related dispute that should have been submitted to arbitration or other form of alternative dispute resolution pursuant to N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14(k). We reverse and remand.
Bell Tower Condominium's Master Deed of May 13, 1982 established a five-unit condominium in Sea Isle. Defendants, who are husband and wife, have owned unit 5, the largest unit, since 1982. They are the only year-round residents. In compliance with the bylaws of the Association and applicable statutes, during the period from 1982 to 1997, the Board conducted annual meetings. No meetings were held thereafter until September 2008. No annual meeting was held in either 2009 or 2010.
Defendants assert that at an unspecified time they asked the Board's treasurer to permit them to review the Association's financial records, as well as the documents concerning an insurance claim filed by the Association. According to defendants, the treasurer denied them access to those documents. In October 2006, defendants told the treasurer that the outdoor decks on their unit were unsafe and needed to be replaced, but the treasurer told them the Association had no funds available to undertake such repairs. Defendants apparently notified the Association of other repairs that were needed, including repairs to the back stairs of their unit and to their storage shed. Defendants explained that many years ago, the water pipes from an adjacent unit broke, flooding defendants' outdoor shed, rendering it unusable. As a result, ever since 2004, defendants have been forced to rent storage space at a commercial storage unit, at a cost of $91 per month.
At the May 30, 2010 meeting of the Board, four of the five elected Board members were present; however, defendant Haffert, who was the fifth Board member, was notified of the meeting, but chose not to attend. At the meeting, the Board approved an $80,000 special assessment for repairs. Units 1, 2, 3 and 4 were each assessed $14,400, and defendants were assessed $22,400 because their unit is substantially larger than the other four. It is this special assessment, and the judge's refusal to send the matter to arbitration, that is the subject of the present appeal.
At the conclusion of the May 30, 2010 meeting, the Board members agreed that at the Board's scheduled meeting on July 4, 2010, the Board would select a contractor from among the three who had submitted bids for the replacement of the outdoor decks.
The Board also agreed to review a number of other maintenance issues, including pole lighting, reconfiguration of the electrical service at the rear of the building, hallway carpeting and painting, repairs to the outside stairway and ...