guest blog by Deborah Goonan
Just this week, a Colin County, Texas judge threw out an HOA’s case against owners of a home used as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. The legal battle began in 2013, when an owner by the name of David R. Schneider independently sued the Congregation Toras Chaim and the owners of the dwelling, Mark and Judith Gothelf, for allegedly violating restrictive covenants specifying “single family” use. The HOA intervened in the case in 2014, shortly after Mr. Schneider was elected to the Board of Highlands of McKamy IV & V HOA.
The Liberty Institute assisted the Gothelfs and the Congregation free of charge. Haynes and Boone LLP also represented the Congregation.
Of course, the media and Liberty Institute are reporting the victory for the small Jewish congregation. They are now permitted to continue using the Gothelf’s home as a synagogue for their small congregation. The Judge dismissed the case primarily based upon two applicable Texas laws: The Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Both statutes invalidate restrictive covenants against use of real property as a religious institution, upholding First Amendment rights.
Reading the lengthy Motion for Summary Judgment filed by attorneys for the defense, available from the Liberty Institute news release, it was obvious that Mr. Schneider, representing himself, and the HOA, represented by their attorney, had no chance of prevailing. In addition to the obvious violations of religious freedom rights, there were hundreds of pages of case law to back up at least a half dozen affirmative defenses, and transcripts of depositions of Rabbi Rich, Mark Gothelf, Mr. Schneider and two other HOA Board members.
So what exactly happened in Highlands of McKamy IV & V HOA?
Well, it was another typical story of HOA conflict. From 2011 – August 2013, before the Orthodox Jewish Congregation moved the location of their gatherings from one home in Highlands of McKamy to another one across the street from David Schneider, there had been no complaints from neighbors or the HOA.
It often takes just one person, in this case Mr. Schneider, to instigate conflict in an HOA. And that conflict is almost always about some alleged or trumped up violation of a restrictive covenant or Board enacted rule. And quite often – as was the case this time – the restriction itself is unconstitutional at the state or federal level, or both.
Based upon testimony supplied by the Rabbi, Mr. Gothelf, Schneider and two other Board members, the reader recognizes the typical hallmarks of HOA conflict:
· A ringleader (Schneider) that organizes an allegedly questionable “election” based upon proxies that are not adequately handled in an unmonitored election process
· A Board President that pushes his own personal agenda as soon as he’s elected
· A Board member with a history of being difficult to get along with, that has a history of suing people
· Fellow Board members that follow the Board President’s lead
· Questionable record-keeping and official document storage and handling practices
· Board members that are unfamiliar with HOA law and/or their own governing documents
· A Board that fails to heed their HOA attorney’s advice, yet that attorney is complicit in filing a case he knows has a high probability of failing
· The tendency of a Board to keep the cost of this legal challenge a secret
· A divided membership, resulting in angry homeowners and a Board recall attempt that is successful in removing Mr. Schneider in July 2014, but not the remaining Board members
· Negative attention for the HOA in the local media, and by word of mouth
· Over a year of stress and unnecessary legal expense for the Gothelfs and the Congregation
Hopefully, this will end the campaign against the Congregation, many of them neighbors in the HOA. I certainly hope there will not be an appeal. The good Rabbi Rich is wise when he states, “We don’t view this as a victory. The victory would be when the whole neighborhood comes together.”