We encourage you to post questions in the comments that we can answer for
you in a future blog post!
Q: When governing documents conflict, creating an ambiguity in meaning,
where can a clear meaning be found?
A: Thankfully, the Civil Code is very clear on the matter of conflicting
governing documents. Where there is a conflict between the governing documents,
the Declaration - (the CC&Rs) - will take precedence over the Article
of Incorporation, Bylaws, and Rules and Regulations. The Articles of Incorporation
take precedence over the Bylaws and Rules and Regulations, and lastly,
the Bylaws take precedence over the Rules and Regulations. ((Civil Code 4205.))
What happens, however, when the conflict is between the Declaration and
the Condominium Plan?
Unfortunately, the Civil Code provides no direction in this circumstance.
A court, therefore, in determining the meaning of terms found in both
the Declaration and Condo Plan may look beyond the words themselves to
find the intended meaning. ((Schmidbauer v. Deelo (2014) 2014 WL 7272948,
8.)) For example, in the recent case of Schmidbauer v. Deelo, two property
owners had a dispute over a set of stairs. ((Id. at 1.)) The stairway
causing the issue connected the common area underground garage with a
separate interest patio. ((Id. at 1-2.)) The homeowner who lived in the
unit connecting to the stairway did not want other homeowners using the
stairway, and cited privacy reasons. ((Id. at 2.)) The other homeowners,
however, enjoyed using this stairway for the convenience factor. ((Id.))
The question was whether or not the stairway was part of the common area
meant for use by all homeowners or whether it was the separate interest
property of the unit it connected to. The answer to this question should
have been an easy one, but it was not. The Declaration said "stairways"
were part of the common area while the Condo Plan said only "common
stairways" were part of the common area. ((Id. at 4.)) Hence the
confusion! Because the two governing documents conflicted and were susceptible
to two different interpretations, the court had to look beyond the words
in the documents to determine what was meant to be common area: all stairways
or only stairways in common areas. ((Id. at 8-9.)) The judge ended up
having to go to the property itself to look at all areas of ingress and
egress, while consulting experts on the condominium plans. ((Id. at 10-12.))
The result, we find, is very peculiar. The court determined the stairway
was a separate interest property that could only be used by other homeowners
during an emergency. ((Id. at 7, 13.)) Generally, stairs are common areas,
but in this instance, because of the evidence provided to the court and
the testimony of an expert who drafts condo plans, the court found otherwise.
((Id. at 7-13.)) The stairs were separate interest property.