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C.A.U.S.E. v. Village Green Homeowners Association, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

July 26, 2017

C.A.U.S.E. (A Texas Unincorporated Nonprofit Association), Appellant
v.
VILLAGE GREEN HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, INC., Appellee

         From the 45th Judicial District Court, Bexar County, Texas Trial Court No. 2015-CI-13299 Honorable Richard Price, Judge Presiding

          Sitting: Rebeca C. Martinez, Justice Patricia O. Alvarez, Justice Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice

          OPINION

          Rebeca C. Martinez, Justice.

         Appellant C.A.U.S.E. (A Texas Unincorporated Nonprofit Association) appeals the trial court's order granting the motion for summary judgment filed by Village Green Homeowners Association, Inc. as well as the order denying the partial motion for summary judgment filed by C.A.U.S.E. The underlying issue is whether the homeowners association was authorized to compel the owners and residents within the subdivision to use and pay for a particular waste and recycling collection provider to the exclusion of all other service providers. We reverse and render.

         Background

         Village Green is a subdivision located in northwest Bexar County. The Village Green Homeowners Association (alternately referred to as "Village Green" or "the Association") was formed on January 12, 1998. The Association is managed by its Board of Directors ("the Board"). Since its formation, the Association has required each individual owner/resident in the subdivision to acquire and pay for their own garbage collection/disposal services. Such requirement was established in the Association's Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions ("the Declaration") and has been the Association's policy since the Declaration was filed of record on January 14, 1998. Paragraph 3.20 of the Declaration reads:

         Rubbish, Trash and Garbage.

3.20. No Lot shall be used or maintained as a dumping ground for rubbish or trash. All garbage and other waste shall be kept in sanitary containers appropriately screened from view. There shall be no burning or incineration of trash, garbage, leaves, brush, or other debris on any Lot. All refuse garbage and trash shall be collected or disposed of by Owner, at his expense. In the event the Owner fails or refuses to keep, or cause to be kept, Owner's Lot or any improvements thereon free from rubbish or debris of any kind, and such failure or refusal shall continue for fifteen (15) days after delivery of written notice thereof to Owner, then the Association may enter upon such Lot and remove or correct the same at the expense of the Owner and such entry shall not be deemed a trespass. (emphasis added).

         In early 2014, a Village Green resident approached the Board and suggested that it consider requiring all residents to use a single trash collection company. Because residents contracted with different companies, there was not a singular day on which garbage collection occurred and trucks from different companies entered the subdivision on different days to collect trash and recycling. The Board directed a homeowner volunteer to research several different waste collection services; Vaquero Waste & Recycling was eventually determined to be the least expensive provider. The proposal to move to a single garbage collection company was discussed at Association board meetings in March, April, May, June, July, and September 2014. Village Green also consulted an attorney about the propriety of the proposal.

         At the November 19, 2014 Board of Directors meeting, the Board voted to select a single garbage collection company and to adopt Vaquero's proposal. Thereafter, Village Green entered into a "Waste Collection Contract" with Vaquero, having an effective date of March 10, 2015. The contract provides that Vaquero is the sole and exclusive provider of waste collection services to Village Green Homeowners Association and requires individual residents to pay for waste collection services directly to Vaquero. The contract was signed by Association president Stephen Grant. Prior to entering into the contract, in December 2014, residents were informed by Village Green that they needed to make arrangements with Vaquero for trash collection by April 1, 2015; the deadline was later extended to April 30, 2015. Village Green also provided residents with information on how to change their collection provider to Vaquero. Although the Declaration provides a mechanism for amendment, Paragraph 3.20 was not amended.[1]

         After the resolution was passed, members of the Board allegedly engaged in repeated harassment to prevent other waste disposal companies from fulfilling their contracts with other residents in the community. On or around March 31, 2015, the Association altered the gate codes in order to prohibit other waste management/recycling companies from entering the subdivision. As a result, some of the homeowners' waste management services became difficult and irregular, and effectively ceased to exist.

         Thereafter, C.A.U.S.E.[2] sued Village Green asserting the following causes of action: tortious interference with existing contract; tortious interference with prospective business relations; interference with plaintiff's easement right of ingress and egress; negligence; breach of the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act; and breach of restrictive covenants. In addition, C.A.U.S.E. sought declaratory relief[3] and requested attorney's fees.

         In response, Village Green filed an answer and counterclaim for reasonable expenses, attorney's fees, and costs. Village Green then filed a partial motion to dismiss. Village Green asked the trial court to dismiss all of C.A.U.S.E.'s claims except for its declaratory judgment action, asserting that C.A.U.S.E. lacked standing to bring the claims on behalf of its members. After a hearing on the partial motion to dismiss, the trial court found there was a defect in parties in that C.A.U.S.E. failed to experience any damages that would allow it to maintain many of the causes of action[4] it alleged in its original petition. The trial court therefore ordered C.A.U.S.E. to amend its petition to include persons who have proper standing as party plaintiffs before March 31, 2016.[5] Further, the trial court ordered the parties to file motions concerning the "threshold" issues of law in the case. The trial court identified the "threshold" issues as:

1. Whether the Defendant has the authority to compel owners or residents within the Village Green subdivision to use the services of a service provider chosen by the Defendant's Board of Directors; and
2. If the first issue is determined in the negative, whether the Defendant's act in that regard is, as a matter of law, a "per se" violation of Chapter 15 of the ...

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