The Massachusetts Appeals Court considered whether a provision in condominium by-laws unfairly prevented individual unit owners from seeking the intervention of the court where the unit owners alleged that the condominium’s trustees had breached their fiduciary duties and mismanaged the condominium’s affairs. In Bettencourt v. Trustees of Sassaquin Village Condominium Trust, the owners of three units in a twelve-unit condominium sued the three trustees who had hired a contractor to pave the condominium’s parking lot without first putting the matter to a vote of all of the unit owners. The paving work resulted in $950 special assessments against each unit owner. The trustees alleged that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the condominium by-laws, which contained a provision (referred to as a “consent requirement”) that required unit owners to obtain the assent of at least 80% of the unit owners before filing suit against the trustees. The plaintiff unit owners had not obtained that assent before filing suit in this case.
The plaintiffs admitted that they had knowingly and voluntarily agreed to the consent requirement when they purchased their condominium units. However, they claimed that the consent requirement was inherently unfair because the trustees comprised 25% percent of the total unit owners and, as a result, they would never be able to sue the trustees unless the trustees consented the filing of suit against them. Thus, they argued, the consent requirement violated Article 11 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, part of the Massachusetts Constitution. Article 11 holds that Massachusetts citizens must have the right to seek redress in court for injuries they have suffered. Unfortunately for the plaintiff unit owners, the Appeals Court found against them. In reaching its decision, the Court noted that the by-laws did not prevent the plaintiffs from persuading other unit owners and at least one of the trustees to support their cause and also that the same rule applied to the trustees. As a result, it was not “one-sided as the plaintiffs had claimed. The Court also relied on precedent holding that constitutional rights can be waived by contract. In this case, the Court held that the plaintiff unit owners had waived their Article 11 rights when they purchased their units and consented to the by-laws. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, this case illustrates the importance of a detailed review of all contracts that could place limitations on one’s right to the courts’ assistance.