Saturday, February 25, 2017

Enforcement Error

Citimortgage, Inc. v. Dusablon, 2015 VT 68

By Andrew Delaney

You may have noticed, dear reader, that we’re doing a bit of spring cleaning here at SCOV Law. That’s because we really do try to summarize every published case that comes out. This is one of those lost-in-the-shuffle cases but that doesn’t make it any less boring exciting than it was when it greeted the world for the first time.

This case is between the Horizon Heights Condominium Association and the Dusablons. Citimortgage, Inc. isn’t even part of this dispute—pay no mind to the case name. See, what happened was that there was an agreed-to foreclosure judgment between Horizon Heights and the Dusablons for past-due assessments. In between the date of that agreement and the trial court’s entry of judgment, a year passed and new assessments accrued. The SCOV says, “At the bottom of procedural muck lies the principal question of this case.” That question is whether the foreclosure judgment can be used to avoid those interim assessments. The SCOV says, “Nope.”

The Dusablons are required to pay monthly assessments. There’s some stuff about Title 27A and Horizon Height’s declaration, bylaws, rules, and regulations, but the bottom line is that there are assessments, those assessments are valid, and the Dusablons are required to pay. Nobody is arguing about that, uh, as a general concept.

There was a foreclosure action that started the ball rolling here (this is Citimortgage’s involvement). Horizon Heights—in the context of that proceeding—filed a cross-claim against the Dusablons for unpaid assessments, which led to the agreed-to-foreclosure judgment referred to above. Still with me? Good.

So, that agreed-to judgment said that as of January 2012 the amount owed on unpaid assessments is so-and-so dollars. The trial court took almost a year to enter judgment. The Dusablons redeemed the property and got a certificate of cross-claim redemption.

Five days later, the Association billed the Dusablons for the interim assessments. The Dusablons said, “We’re not paying!” and moved to enforce the judgment. There was a hearing, and the trial court ruled in the Dusablons’ favor that the Association couldn’t collect any assessments before the date the court entered judgment, but could collect after the date of the order.

The Association asked the trial court to reconsider its decision, but the trial court wasn’t having it. “Res judicata!” it exclaimed with a flourish of its pen. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but you get the idea. There was more procedural muckery, which we won’t get into here, but eventually we end up at the SCOV for appellate fun and games.

The SCOV runs through a couple procedural points and arguments, finds them wanting, and moves onto the Dusablons’ motion to enforce, which is really the big deal here.

Basically, the Dusablons asked for a ruling from the trial court that the judgment order covered monthly assessments accruing from the time of the agreed-to-judgment and the trial court’s entry of judgment.

The SCOV spills a little bit of ink explaining that “motions for enforcement have fallen into a procedural blender with Rule 60 motions for modification or clarification, as our trial courts have previously treated a motion requesting modification as one for enforcement, and vice versa.” What happened here, in the SCOV’s view, is that the trial court treated the Dusablons’ motion for enforcement as a motion for clarification, “and proceeded to interpret its prior judgment order by way of a new explanatory order.”

The SCOV reviews a trial court’s interpretation of its previous orders de novo. And here the SCOV concludes that the trial court didn’t do a very good job reading its previous order. You see, the prior order said the late charges were as of “January 1, 2012.” When the trial court entered judgment over a year later, that didn’t change the time period that was covered by the order.

The SCOV explains: “Because the trial court misread the earlier judgment order, its conclusion that the Association is barred by res judicata from pursuing assessments that accrued prior to February 15, 2013 cannot stand.” The Association never sued the Dusablons for the interim-accruing assessments, it simply billed them. Because these amounts were never in front of the trial court, res judicata can’t apply.

So the ruling on the motion to enforce is reversed and the Association gets to pass “GO” and collect its $200—so to speak.

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