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A Small Wind

The woman on the other end of the line was asking for my advice. “The board is harassing me,” she said plaintively. “They poisoned my dog.”

I was surprised. “Have you gone to the police?” I asked.

“I’ve been to the police so often, they know my face. They say they can’t help me.”

“Well,” I thought, “if the police can’t help you, how can I?” But what I said was, “Maybe you should talk to a co-op lawyer.”

“That’s what I need, what a great idea,” she said, as though I had suggested a way to cure cancer. “Do you know one?”

I referred her to James Samson, an attorney at Samson Fink & Dubow. She thanked me profusely and that was that.

Or so I thought. A couple of days later, Samson called me, and we talked about the woman I had sent his way. He didn’t take her case, but he did offer her some advice. “It’s all about presentation,” he said to me. “I told her, ‘Your presentation is awful.’” Although her charges were serious-sounding, on closer inspection, there was less here than meets the ear. The supposed “poisoning” of her dog occurred when the animal came into contact with some boric acid that had been put out to kill vermin. Other charges were equally questionable: she said the board had changed the locks on her. But, as she admitted after probing by Samson, the board had actually changed locks because it was switching over to a more sophisticated lock system. Everyone was given an expensive, electronic key fob, and additional keys cost $50 each. She wanted more fobs, and she gave them a check, but for some reason, it had been rejected. Banking problems, perhaps. But harassment? Not likely.

“She has a tendency to overstate her case,” Samson said. “I told her she had a motor mouth. ‘Listen to what you’re saying.’ I said. ‘If you can’t state your claim in three sentences or less, you’ve got a problem. Judges aren’t going to listen to you for the whole afternoon.” Her most serious charge – a lack of annual meetings – could be cleared up if she sought out the votes for a special meeting, which he explained to her how to do. “But she has to take an active role. I told her, ‘If you really think you’re being harassed, then go to the Human Rights Commission (HRC).’”

From the board’s point of view, how should they deal with a disgruntled shareholder like her?

“The last thing the board wants is for it to go to the Human Rights Commission,” Samson observed, switching perspectives. “The people over there are zealots, true believers, and they can create a lot of trouble. The board should try to stay as far away from harassment claims as possible. The board should be very careful. They shouldn’t play games.”

What games had this woman’s board played? Apparently, they had allowed some shareholders to easily buy two or three additional keys, and if that is true, the HRC will probably ask, “Did you play games with her? Did you make it more difficult for her because she’s always complaining?”

Everyone should be treated in the same way, asserts Samson. The board doesn’t want to get itself involved in a discrimination case. Boards should be especially wary of shareholders and unit-owners, he says, who are “looking to find an offense.” Even when a board thinks a claim is bogus, it needs to treat all shareholders the same way to avoid finding itself in litigation.

In the end, I’m reminded of an old saying: “Even a small wind can raise a lot of dust.” Don’t get caught up in personality clashes. After all, it’s your home, but it’s also a business. Treat it like one.

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