A community association is a corporation, in many ways similar to any other corporation, be it a for-profit or not-for-profit company. In exercising decisions, for the most part, the community association’s board members must adhere to the “business judgment rule.” As I like to explain it, this means that the board member’s decisions might be right or might be wrong. However, the ultimate question is, “did the board member act reasonably?” In other words, did the board member exercise his or her discretionary decisions in a reasonable manner? It should be obvious that, in making such decisions, the director must owe some type of duty to the association, too.
In a recent case, McCoy v. Durden, decided on December 31, 2014, the Florida’s First District Court of Appeal had occasion to answer this question, albeit in a slightly different context than that of a community association. Nevertheless, in a generic sense, the First DCA examined the duty of care and loyalty owed by a director to his or her corporation that they serve and provided some interesting historical context, too.
The First DCA in McCoy quickly pointed out that Florida courts have long since recognized that corporate officers and directors owe both a duty of loyalty and a duty of care to the corporation that they serve. As early as 1907, in a case styled, Jacksonville Cigar Co. v. Dozier, the Florida Supreme Court recognized that, under the Florida common law, a director is in a fiduciary relationship with the corporation. In 1932, in Orlando Orange Groves Co. v. Hale, the Florida Supreme Court described the relationship between a corporation and its directors and officers. The Florida Supreme Court explained in the Orlando Orange Groves Co. case that “[t]hey are required to act in the utmost good faith, and in accepting the office they impliedly undertake to give to the enterprise the benefit of their best care and judgment, and to exercise the powers conferred solely in the interest of the corporation.”
Later, in 1980, in Snead v. U.S. Trucking Corp, the First DCA explained that “[a] director’s… acts are subject to be tested by the rules governing the relation of a trustee to his cestui que trust… He is bound to act with fidelity, the utmost good faith, and with his private and personal interests subordinated to his trust duty whenever the two come in conflict.” By way of explanation (and because I had to look it up, too) a “cestui que” is the person for whom a benefit exists, and a “cestui que trust” is a person for whose benefit a trust is created.
Under Florida’s common law, the Florida Supreme Court has defined the concept of fiduciary duties broadly reflecting its historical origin in equity. In other words, even if a legal duty was not codified in the statutory law, a common law duty exists, too. In 1927 in Quinn v. Phipps, a case involving allegations that a real estate broker had violated his fiduciary duty, the Florida Supreme Court explained the basis of the duty: “The term ‘fiduciary or confidential relation,’ is a very broad one. It has been said that it exists, and that relief is granted, in all cases in which influence has been acquired and abused – in which confidence has been reposed and betrayed. The origin of the confidence is immaterial. The rule embraces both technical fiduciary relations and those informal relations which exist wherever one man trusts in and relies upon another… Stripped of all embellishing verbiage, it may be confidently asserted that every instance in which a confidential or fiduciary relation in fact is shown to exist will be interpreted as such. The relation and duties involved need not be legal; they may be moral, social, domestic or personal. If a relation of trust and confidence exists between the parties… that is sufficient as a predicate for relief.” (Emphasis added.)
So, does a director of a community association owe his or her association a duty of care and loyalty? You bet they do! Now that we have established that a board member owes a duty of care and loyalty, what exactly are they? It is a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the association by acting with loyalty, honesty, and in good faith. Put simply, a director owes a duty to exercise good business judgment and to use ordinary care and prudence in the operation of the association. A director should perform his or her actions in good faith and in the best interest of the association, exercising the care an ordinary person would use under similar circumstances. A director’s decisions are typically protected under the “business judgment rule” unless they breach one of these duties. So, if you are a board member, remember the duty of care and loyalty that you owe to the association you serve.
Jeffrey Rembaum, Esq. of Kaye, Bender, Rembaum attorneys at law, legal practice consists of representation of condominium, homeowner, commercial and mobile home park associations, as well as exclusive country club communities and the developers who build them. He is a regular columnist for The Condo News, a biweekly publication and was inducted into the 2012, 2013 & 2014 Florida Super Lawyers. He can be reached at 561-241-4462.