In September 2018, in Baumgartner v. Timmins, 245 Ariz. 334, 429 P.3d 567, the Arizona Court of Appeals provided further clarification on what constitutes an “encumbrance” on a property for purposes of Arizona’s statutory scheme prohibiting the recording of “false documents.” The statute, A.R.S. § 33-420, prohibits the recording of documents that a person knows to be forged, are groundless, or that contain material misstatements (or false claims). A person who claims an “interest in, or a lien or encumbrance against” real property who records such documents can be held liable for $5,000 or treble the actual damages caused by the recording (whichever is greater), A.R.S. § 33-420(A), and perhaps even be found guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor, A.R.S. § 33-420(E).
At issue in Baumgartner were neighbors fighting about CC&Rs—a typical neighborhood fight. In 2015, some of the neighbors filed suit against the Timminses for violating the CC&Rs. The Timminses did not contest the lawsuit, resulting in a default judgment. In what the Court of Appeals characterized as a lawsuit filed by the Timminses “in apparent response to the [first] lawsuit and resulting default judgment,” the Timminses created, signed, and recorded affidavits contending that the Plaintiffs in the original lawsuit were themselves “in violation of several provisions of the CC&Rs.” The Plaintiffs then filed suit again against the Timminses, this time contending that the Timminses had violated A.R.S. § 33-420 by recording the affidavits because the affidavits, the Plaintiffs contended, created encumbrances on their properties. The Apache County Superior Court agreed, and issued a final judgment nullifying the recorded documents and awarding the Timminses damages, along with their attorneys’ fees and costs.