By Alyssa Gautieri
There are quite a few ways that an association manager can breach their fiduciary duty to the association, whether it’s acting outside of their scope of responsibility or performing a task that was unauthorized by the board. As hired workers, do managers have the same fiduciary duty to the association as the board?
According to attorney Sara A. Austin — a partner at Austin Law Firm, LLC in York, Pennsylvania — fiduciary duty is a legal concept that refers to the duty owed by one person to another person or entity. The fiduciary, whether a real estate agent, lawyer, or association manager, acts on behalf of the principal.
“The fiduciary must act in the best interest of the principal — in this case, the association — even if it would hurt the fiduciary by doing so,” Austin said. An association manager must perform their established duties while putting their client’s interest ahead of their own and preserving good faith and trust.
A manager is hired by the board to act on behalf of the association and is essentially “stepping into the shoes of the board to complete delegated tasks,” Austin said. “In essence, managers have the same fiduciary duty to the association as the board.”
If the association is professionally managed, the manager handles most of the day-to-day operations, whereas the board deals with governance matters. “The manager has no more power than the board does, so if the board is not authorized by statute or otherwise to do something, a manager cannot do it,” Austin said.
A breach of fiduciary duty occurs when the fiduciary acts in their interest, rather than the best interest of the principal. A manager or management company signs a contract at the time of employment or engagement that should outline those responsibilities. A breach of duty may occur if a manager performs duties that are contrary to the contract or go beyond the authority that was granted to them by the board.
For example, if a board authorizes the manager to sign a contract for a job that costs $2,000 but the contract states the job will cost $3,000. In this case, the manager has exceeded his or her authority. If there is a breach of fiduciary duty, a manager could be liable for the damages to the association.
The association must protect itself from a manager that acts outside of their authority. The board should have a clear understanding of its contract with the management company, according to Austin. The contract should outline the manager’s responsibilities, who is monitoring the manager’s performance, and how the manager reports his or her actions and performance to the board.
The contract should also outline how checks and balances are going to occur, “especially when it comes to financial issues,” said Austin, who noted that communication between the manager and the treasurer is very important. “There has to be awareness of what is going on so if something seems amiss, it can be stopped early.”
There may also be a breach of fiduciary duty if the board directs a manager to perform a duty outside of the scope of their responsibility and the manager complies. For example, the manager alone cannot approve the budget even if the board were to ask them to do so. “The manager needs to know what the board can delegate to them,” said Austin.
If the board is pushing for a manager to perform a duty that cannot legally be asked of them, the manager should not take that action because they could be held liable if the duty is performed. Any changes in authority should be written down, whether in the bylaws or manager contract. “Having it in writing protects everyone,” said Austin. The manager can contact the president of the board or the association’s counsel, or the management company may seek their own counsel if issues persist.
When it comes to avoiding any breaches in fiduciary duty, Austin said, “it’s really important for the board and the management agent to have a good working relationship.”