New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
Frank Lovece in Board Operations
It was a case that should never have come to court. At this pleasant-looking condo complex deep in Staten Island, different iterations of the five retirees — former chauffeur Thomas Milazzo; Charles Montemaranno, who'd reconditioned electrical motors; Ron Silver, who'd worked for the New York City Department of Buildings; Thomas Raia, who'd labored in construction; and Leroy Tepper, who used to sell greeting cards — had gathered, on and off, to shoot the breeze after dinnertime. In warm weather, they'd meet outdoors, on the sidewalk of the parking loop just outside the front doors.
But after octogenarian Tepper exchanged words with board-member Joann Goldstein one day in February 2009, the board began issuing fines and forbidding the seniors to gather in those common areas. The issue escalated to include police visits, threats and more. (See "Seniors Talk the Talk, Board Says Take a Walk: Condo Controversy Spills into Media" and "Staten Island Seniors, Part 2: Condo Controversy Coming to Court" for the detailed story.)
The Solomon of Staten Island
This past Nov. 30, however, Judge Judith N. McMahon of the Richmond County Supreme Court literally laid down the law. "Basically," says Tepper, "the judge decided that we should be able to use the lobby with no restrictions for two days a week for 90 minutes each day, plus we have [a studio apartment that the board uses one day a month as a] conference room available for us, I think for 90 minutes [at a time], too. And outside is at our disposal" with no restrictions.
Cheryl Ruiz, the regional director for Wentworth Property Management and the managing agent of Elmwood Park II who was involved throughout the matter, did not return several calls for comment.
The judge did what the unit-owners and the condo board and its professionals could just as easily have done themselves without legal expenses and nearly two years of acrimony — find a compromise both sides could live with. In that, the case can prove instructive to other boards.
The judge certainly appears to have thought so. "We had an initial hearing on Nov. 19," says Tepper. "We had our witnesses and our exhibits, and the judge said at the end, 'Listen, this is a hard thing to decide and I think you ought to get together and work something out.'"
Emotion Trumped Logic
By this time, however, emotion seems to have clouded logic. Indeed, the five seniors' attorney, Robert Adinolfi of Staten Island, had asked the tempestuous Tepper to withdraw from the case. Tepper refused, and successfully petitioned the court to serve as his own counsel. His brother, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., attorney Noel Tepper, provided advice.
And ironically, to hear Tepper put it, his independence seems to have provided the impetus for the compromise. The judge, Tepper says, told the attorneys to submit a proposal that she would review before issuing a decision on Nov. 30. But, "The condo lawyer told Rob he's not going to submit anything. So Rob says he's not going to submit anything either. I thought these two guys were playing games." (A call to Adinolfi was not returned.)
When court convened on the 30th, Tepper recalls, "I said, 'Before you go any further, your honor, I understand that when the judge asks for something you should give it to her. I understand the other attorneys didn't submit a proposal. But I think the judge is entitled to get what she wants.' And I handed my proposal to her. She in turn handed it to the other lawyers." They seemed disinclined to accept or to negotiate its provisions, so the judge ordered the condo's attorney, along with managing agent Ruiz, into her chambers, Tepper says. Shortly thereafter, the judge issued her compromise ruling.
"She gave a big list of how she came to her conclusions," Tepper says. "The basic reason is because of longevity — how long the boys were meeting there — and that we had never been fined before and now all of a sudden we are. We presented instances of other [unit-owners] violating rules and regulations, which the condo never saw fit to fine."
Common Issue with Common Areas
Perhaps coincidentally, the decision came on the heels of no less than a U.S. Justice Department finding in late November that the Stonecleave Village Association condominium in Methuen, Mass., had discriminated against unit-owners with children who played Wiffle Ball and tag in the outside common areas. The board, which had fined such families over $500 for the ostensible infractions but only fined other residents $10 for similar violations, was ordered to pay $130,000 to the victims and $20,000 in civil penalties. "This settlement should serve as a warning to condo associations … that discrimination against residents with children is unacceptable," U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement.
The lesson from all this? That it's cheaper, less aggravating, less time-consuming and just sort of more grown-up to try to find a compromise that a community can live with together.
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