Charles Zsebedics, general manager of the five-building, 1,049-apartment Park City Estates co-op in Rego Park, Queens, has seen his share of threats. In fact, notes the veteran agent, they “happen here several times a year. We’ve been threatened in the management office, where people come in and say, ‘We’re gonna kill you; you’ve raised the maintenance too many times.’ Or it’s an argument about a garage space, where we have a waiting list of three years and they flip out on us. They’ll threaten to kill us if they don’t like the answer we give them.”
The threateners’ identities aren’t even always known. “There are 5,000 residents here,” Zsebedics says. “Sometimes, they don’t tell us who they are. We’ll call the police, but we can’t be sure what building they’re from, or whether they even live here or not.” On occasion, after work “I, my assistant, and a security person have all gone to the garage at the same time because of threats we’ve received that day.”
But one incident in particular stands out. In December 2004, “There was a threat made in writing, posted in the building where my office is. The person wrote, ‘Kill the board of directors, kill the Jews, kill the manager.’”
It seemed serious enough for Zsebedics to contact the 112th Precinct in Forest Hills as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, because of the apparent terrorist tone of the threat. Even more practically, the board also installed $30,000 worth of covert surveillance cameras and related equipment. That did the trick. It recorded a woman in one of the elevators writing on the walls.”
It then took detectives several weeks to make a positive identification, but they eventually arrested 52-year-old Chandramattie Singh, who told police that she did it out of anger that the maintenance fees were increasing. She was charged with first-degree criminal mischief, a felony, as well as “making graffiti,” a misdemeanor. The board compelled Singh, who wound up doing community service, to sell the apartment. She moved away.
When threats are made, what should a board do? When a board member is threatened in his capacity as a director undertaking tasks for the co-op or condo, is he or she protected?
the board’s responsibility. “If somebody is threatening someone, it is primarily the responsibility of the person being threatened to deal with it,” says attorney Steve Wagner, a partner at Wagner Davis, “except when the threat is completely within the scope of his responsibility as an officer/director. In that case, the threat is made not because of something the individual did but because of something the co-op/board did, and it should take on the responsibility.”
For instance, slander against an individual is not a board matter. “But when someone says, ‘I’m going to beat you up because the board didn’t do x, y, and z,’ then the board should take responsibility,” continues Wagner.
If the board takes no action after learning of a threat, it leaves itself open to litigation, says Wagner, who warns, however, that you should be absolutely certain of your facts before you go public. “But the board has a clear responsibility to the residents,” observes Wagner. “If there is a clearly threatening situation, they should warn people about it.”
putting the board on notice. If the board refuses to support a threatened director, then the board needs to be put on notice. “It doesn’t have to be an attorney letter,” says real estate lawyer Bruce Levinson, “but just a written communication saying, ‘This happened and I believe we as a board need to do something.’ If the board ignores [the notice], it’s at their peril.”
file a complaint. On your own, an individual board member could file a police complaint against the person who is threatening you on the grounds of harassment. But unless you get a sympathetic detective, that may be of limited use.
getting an order of protection. What the threatened individual should do, at the very least, is seek an order of protection from the police. “If you’re threatened,” advises Levinson, “then you do what anyone else would do, which is ask for a protective order. If it rises to something more significant – if contact is made, whether it’s a shove or something worse – then go to the police, whether or not it results in bodily injury. Nobody should be assaulting anybody else, for any reason.”
According to Andrea Bunis, the principal at Andrea Bunis Management, to get a protective order, you “go to your local precinct and say that you feel unsafe because someone is threatening you. You should bring along any corroborating witnesses or evidence, like a note.”
The police will investigate and, if there is merit to your claim, an order of protection will be issued. Basically, what that does is limit how close the named individual can get to you.
The one-page order is sent to the person issuing the threats. It states, in bold-faced capital letters, “Notice: Your failure to obey this order may subject you to mandatory arrest and criminal prosecution, which may result in your incarceration for up to seven years for contempt of court.”
It then lists different types of restrictions, which can be checked off by a judge (i.e., “Stay away from [the person named] and/or from the home of/school of/business of...” etc.). It also can restrict communications, and adds: “Refrain from assault, stalking, harassment, menacing, reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct, intimidation, threats or otherwise interfering with [the person named].”
defusing the situation. Another step a board can take is to try and defuse the situation before it escalates. Professional mediators and others offer tips on how to deal with face-to-face confrontations effectively (see “FYI: Dealing with Difficult Shareholders,” Habitat, May 2006), but you can’t possibly anticipate it all. Former condo-board member Michael Van Dyk, a computer programmer and homeowners advocate in North Miami Beach, Florida, recalls being threatened by his own association’s vice president at a board meeting where that officer “proposed we bribe a building inspector,” Van Dyk recalls. “I disagreed with that. In fact, I was the only one who did so. And he threatened me across the table – his exact words were, ‘If you f--- with me, I’ll get your wife! I’ll get your kids!’”
At the lesser, anger-venting portion of the spectrum, before you take action against a threat made by an individual, “You have to use judgment,” says Zsebedics. “Depending on who the individual was, we’ll determine [if] they were simply having a bad day.” If it’s more than that or it’s someone unfamiliar, “We call the police immediately.” When the threatening person is known, “We follow up with our attorney, who writes a letter warning [him or her] that it’s a violation of the proprietary lease.”
“If the incident is a one-time thing and in the heat of passion, a letter of admonition should go out, at a minimum,” agrees Levinson. “If someone seriously hurt someone else, that’s a violation of the proprietary lease and you want that person out of there.”
“We’ll call the police,” after getting a threat, Zsebedics says, “and sometimes the police will say, ‘If they didn’t hurt you, there’s nothing we can do. It’s absurd. We were threatened and they can’t do anything about it since none of us were touched.”
If you’re actually struck, go to the hospital, no matter how unhurt you think you are; aside from the potential for hidden injuries, the police have been known to put complaints on the back burner if they don’t result in a hospital visit.
Creating a record is important in case there’s litigation down the road. If there’s injury or litigation, the board’s directors’ and officers’ liability insurance should cover the medical and legal costs if they arose from the performance of your duties.
The injured or threatened board member, Levinson notes, “should recuse himself or herself from discussion of what should result from the attack. They should be present to say what happened and to make a factual presentation, but for [a discussion relating to] a vote, recusal is important since arguably there is a personal stake in the matter.”
And if, despite all this, a lazy or fearful board or an uninterested managing agent won’t act on threats against you, the individual director, there’s a simple solution, advises Levinson. “You could resign. You can say, ‘You know what? Get somebody else to do this uncompensated, thankless job that’s getting me threatened with attack.’”