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Whitmer v. Hilton Casitas Homeowners Association

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

July 10, 2018

R. L. WHITMER, Plaintiff/Appellant,
v.
HILTON CASITAS HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, et al., Defendants/Appellees.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. CV2016-055080 The Honorable Aimee L. Anderson, Judge

          R.L. Whitmer, Scottsdale Plaintiff/Appellant

          Shaw & Lines LLC, Phoenix By Augustus H. Shaw IV, Patrick J. Whelan Counsel for Defendants/Appellees

          Judge Kent E. Cattani delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Presiding Judge James B. Morse Jr. and Judge Lawrence F. Winthrop joined.

          OPINION

          CATTANI, JUDGE:

         ¶1 R.L. Whitmer appeals from the superior court's judgment dismissing his complaint against Hilton Casitas Homeowners Association ("Hilton Casitas") for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Whitmer's complaint sought to enforce a final decision resulting from a prior administrative dispute resolution proceeding, part of a process to adjudicate disputes between an owner and a homeowners' association concerning compliance with condominium documents and governing statutes. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. ("A.R.S.") §§ 32-2199 to -2199.05. Given the statutory directive that such decisions are "enforceable through contempt of court proceedings," A.R.S. § 32-2199.02(B), and absent any authority establishing that the administrative tribunal itself has jurisdiction to enforce such orders by contempt or otherwise, we hold that the superior court has subject matter jurisdiction to do so. Accordingly, and for reasons that follow, we reverse the dismissal and remand for further proceedings.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Hilton Casitas is the homeowners' association for a property in Scottsdale subject to Arizona's laws governing condominiums. See A.R.S. tit. 33, ch. 9. Whitmer is a residence owner and a member of Hilton Casitas.

         ¶3 In 2014, Whitmer filed an administrative petition alleging that Hilton Casitas had violated statutory provisions governing procedures for adopting or amending a budget (specifically, that Hilton Casitas had overspent on legal fees without receiving owners' approval of the increase).[1] See A.R.S. § 33-1243(D). The dispute went to a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") in the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"), and the ALJ issued a decision in Whitmer's favor concluding that Hilton Casitas had failed to comply with the statutory provision for amending its budget, and ordered Hilton Casitas to "fully comply with the [statutory requirement] in the future." Hilton Casitas did not seek judicial review, see A.R.S. § 32-2199.02(B), and the ALJ's order became final.

         ¶4 Two years later, Whitmer filed this complaint in superior court alleging that Hilton Casitas had failed to comply with the ALJ's order and seeking enforcement of the decision by contempt. Hilton Casitas answered, then moved to dismiss for (as relevant here) lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Ariz. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Whitmer opposed the motion and included as an exhibit an informational article from OAH, which included the following statement explaining OAH's view that the superior court was the proper forum for enforcement proceedings:

If the petition item has been decided by a court or previously has been addressed in a hearing before the OAH, it cannot be revisited. OAH has no authority for contempt proceedings or enforcement of prior decisions. However, failure by a party to comply with a decision issued by the OAH may result in the other party seeking enforcement of the Administrative Law Judge's decision through a contempt of court proceeding in Superior Court.

         After full briefing, the superior court granted the motion to dismiss, reasoning that the court's jurisdiction was limited to judicial review of the ALJ's ruling (not at issue here) and did not include authority to consider an action to enforce an administrative order by contempt. The court acknowledged the statutory provision stating that the ALJ's order "is enforceable through contempt of court proceedings," see A.R.S. § 32-2199.02(B), but concluded that the proper forum for such contempt proceedings "is the Administrative Courts, not the Superior Court."

         ¶5 Whitmer then emailed OAH, noting the court's ruling and requesting information regarding where to file his contempt complaint. In response, OAH's acting director stated that "there is nothing in OAH's enabling statutes (ARS § 41-1092 et. seq.), that would enable OAH to enforce its own decisions through contempt proceedings that it would hold." Whitmer then filed a timely motion for reconsideration in superior court, attaching as exhibits his correspondence with OAH. After the superior court denied reconsideration, Whitmer filed a motion for new trial, which the court also denied.

         ¶6 The superior court awarded attorney's fees to Hilton Casitas and entered a final judgment dismissing the case. Whitmer timely appealed, and we have ...


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