The court filings date back to April 2014, but that’s hardly where this story of neighborly angst begins.
For that, you have to go back to the middle of 2012. That’s when Abby and Jonathan Weber bought their daughter Mollie a mailbox inspired by Tigger, the colorful character from the Winnie the Pooh stories.
UPDATE: State court won't save young Bucks County girl's Tigger mailbox
It’s a cute gift, and one that Mollie likely appreciated. Any young girl or boy would, right?
You know who didn’t appreciate the Tigger mailbox? Members of the Laurel Oaks Homeowners Association that oversees the Bucks County neighborhood that the Webers call home.
It so riled the association that the battle over a cute mailbox ended up in court in 2014. Not only that but, earlier this month, arguments in the still-languishing case was heard by a trio of Commonwealth Court judges.
The Webers, the homeowners association and attorneys from both sides all declined to comment about the case that’s awaiting a Commonwealth Court decision since the October 17 hearing. (That totally bummed me out; this story has 5,000-word think piece written all over it.)
The underlying question of the legal battles: Do homeowners associations have final say over everything residents want to do outside their homes?
'BREACH OF CONTRACT'
Laurel Oaks is a secluded nook of well-kept homes on well-manicured lots in Langhorne. It sits among a collection of several similar developments about five minutes away from the Sesame Place exit on Route 1.
A spin through various court filings gives a decent sense of how a child’s mailbox – plainly visible on GoogleMaps, as it is if you drive by the house today – could spark a nasty legal battle that could continue eternally, though. (A Commonwealth Court judge quipped that they don’t generally hear mailbox-related cases at that level of the judiciary.)
Just before the clock struck noon on April 15, 2014, the Bucks County Prothonotary’s Office stamped a “breach of contract” complaint filed by Jonathan Weber against the “Board of Directors of the Laurel Oaks Association.”
Weber filed the case pro se, meaning he didn’t hire an attorney but relied on lessons previously learned in law school to guide his family’s way.
The complaint noted the family installed the mailbox in mid-2012 but then received some pushback “on or about August 12” of that year.
“The Webers received a letter stating that the installation of the mailbox was in violation of the Guidelines because the Webers had not applied to Laurel Oaks … for the ‘change or addition’ made to their lot,” it read.
“The current mailbox is not compatible with the architectural design character of the community.”
The family maintained that changing the mailbox outside their Fawnhill Drive home did not require approval from the association, unlike a new deck or changes to the home’s physical appearance.
That September 6, they applied to keep the mailbox. The association denied that request, stating “the current mailbox is not compatible with the architectural design character of the community.”
The next day, the family “replied that they felt they were being unreasonably and intentionally singled out, for reasons unknown, for discriminatory, unfair and unequal treatment.”
The Webers brought their case – along with a petition of support signed by some 30 fellow homeowners – before the board on October 24, 2012.
There, they showed “dozens of photographs of mailboxes in Laurel Oaks that were similar to the Webers in coloring, were in significant disrepair, or were otherwise unusual, that had been allowed by the Board to remain in place.”
They also argued that the board was biased against them because they believed the mailbox complaint was filed by a board member. It didn’t work.
“(Though) the community felt that the Webers’ mailbox was entirely consistent with ‘the architectural design character of the community,’ the Webers were informed that their appeal had been denied on November 5, 2012,” the complaint read.
The legal battle was just beginning.
THEY 'KNEW IT WAS A GIFT' FOR A CHILD
In that 2014 filing, the Webers sued for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, abuse of discretion, violation of due process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence infliction of emotional distress, retaliation and discrimination.
“The Board ordered The Webers to remove the mailbox that the Board … knew was a gift to Millie Weber,” read the intentional infliction of emotional distress entry.
“Since the Board … initially sent letters notifying the Webers that they were required to remove the mailbox, the Board … (has) sent additional letters finding deficiencies with The Webers’ maintenance of their house, including that the painting on the exterior of The Webers’ was deficiently maintained,” read the “retaliation” entry.
They also claimed they saw an increase in warnings regarding things like “an obligation to sweep the street in front of their house from grass clippings that had blown in front of their house from a neighbor’s property.”
Less than a month later, the homeowners association and management company, represented by attorney Allan Goulding at this point, responded with a filing of their own.
Whittled down to its basics, they maintained that the complaint should be dismissed outright, and rules are rules and the Webers violated them.
Talk of settlement offers and compromises never went anywhere, so the sides filed and responded and responded and filed throughout the ensuing months. (According to the Bucks County Courts’ web viewer, there are 47 entries on the docket in 2014, 16 in 2015, 47 in 2016 and at least four this year.)
As of late 2015, the association maintained that the only issue remaining in the case is whether the “’Tigger’ mailbox is in compliance” with the rules in Laurel Oaks.
By this point, the Webers had racked up some $1,385 in unpaid fines as a result of the kerfuffle and, because one of their filings arrived nearly eight hours after the deadline, they faced going to trial without getting the discovery evidence from the other side that they needed to effectively make their case.
“If your clients wish to discuss a different resolution (that does not involve depositions, hearing and a trial), I am happy to have those discussions,” Jonathan Weber wrote in a December 2015 letter to the defendant’s attorney, court papers indicated.
“This would be, it seems to me, a much more appropriate process than putting artificial deadlines on settlement discussions and then attempting to strong arm pro se plaintiffs by leveraging local courts to force a trial before Defendants fairly respond to discovery,” the letter continued.
THE JUDGE RULES
On April 12, 2016, Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Mellon heard the civil case in a non-jury trial.
The testimony he heard wasn’t readily available via the Bucks County Courts web portal. But Mellon's decision, issued six days later, reads: “It is hereby ORDERED and DECREED that the Plaintiffs, JONATHAN and ABBEY WEBER, must remove the Tigger mailbox within thirty (30) days from the date of the Order.”
The 12-page “opinion” provided by Mellon in September after the initial decision was appealed further explained the decision.
It boiled down to questions about whether a mailbox qualifies as a “structure,” whether the board has the right to regulate mailboxes; whether the mailbox “did not comply with the architectural design of the community” and whether the board abused its discretion.
Mellon sided with those who wanted the Tigger mailbox to go away.
Yes, he wrote, the mailbox is a structure because the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code defines a structure as “any man-made object having an ascertainable stationary location on or in land or water, whether or not affixed to the land.”
“A mailbox is not a naturally-occurring phenomena. Rather, a mailbox is a man-made constructed development, composed of parts that have been intentionally joined together,” he wrote, offering clarity for anybody who did not recognize these base truths about mailboxes.
No, he wrote, the rules don’t exempt mailboxes because they’re not explicitly mentioned in the guidelines.
Hence, the Webers “violated the covenant” between resident and association by putting up a new mailbox without previous approval.
Included in this decision was testimony from Eric Kadish, association president, under questioning from defense attorney Allan Goulding.
Goulding: (According to the architectural guidelines, “The type, style and color of the proposed exterior materials should match those existing on the original home. Did the Tigger mailbox match the original home?
Kadish: No. Mr. Weber’s style home is what they call an Essex-style home. I think with the clapboard siding, it has a New England look to it, and I don’t think the Tigger mailbox fits with the character of that particular home or any home in our neighborhood for that matter. …
As I explained, you just look at it. It’s not a standard mailbox by anybody’s – maybe it fits in terms of the height and setback requirements, but in terms of its appearance, it doesn’t look like a standard-type mailbox or even some of the more elaborate or elegant-type mailboxes, which is the look we’re trying to maintain in the neighborhoods.
With that, Mellon upheld the previous decision, but it didn’t end there.
Kadish, who lives right around the corner from the Webers, has a steel-gray mailbox in front of his home. On neighboring blocks, there are at least two mailboxes decorated with floral designs. Another home features a mailbox with a jack-o-lantern depicting two black cats playing.
Meanwhile, the Tigger mailbox still stands proudly. It matches the autumnal hues of the trees throughout Laurel Oaks.
WHERE THINGS STAND TODAY
A year-and-a-week later, Goulding appeared before Commonwealth Court on behalf of the homeowners association. Jonathan Weber ceded pro se duties and was represented that mid-October day by attorney David Benjamin Sherman.
“We don’t get a lot of mailbox cases,” said Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson at the outset of the 15-minute hearing that centered on whether the Webers received “the discovery they needed” before the case went to court.
It also focused on the Webers filing the requisite paperwork “seven hours and 53 minutes” late because of a mailing snafu.
"Cooler heads must prevail." – Commonwealth Court Judge James Gardner Collins
Goulding quipped that he hoped he would not become known as “the Tigger slayer” because of his role in the case.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “We’re done.”
At that point, Commonwealth Court Judge James Gardner Colins wondered aloud whether a “silly matter” like this is really worth racking up some $35,000 in legal fees.
He also noted that “it’s not outside the realm of possibility” that should the homeowner’s association prevail, the Webers could appeal to an even higher court, though he noted that he didn’t think they’d have any First Amendment-based complaints.
“I like Tigger myself.…," Colins said, noting the risk/reward of letting the case drag on. “Cooler heads must prevail.”
The Webers, the homeowners association and all attorneys declined to comment publicly, some noting the matter was still making its way through the courts.
A decision is expected by early December. Stay tuned.