April 29, 2011 — Your condo board has just approved a large special assessment to finance the replacement of an aging heating and cooling system, and your owners are not pleased. But one owner in particular is infuriated by the decision. He shouts obscenities at the board during the meeting and continues to hurl insults at the board president after the session ends, blocking the door as the president tries to leave the room. He repeats those insults every time he sees the president, and bombards the board with unflattering e-mails. Four months later, these verbal assaults continue.
Is this just exceptionally boorish behavior, which the board should ignore? Or do this angry owner's actions constitute harassment, which you can and should take steps to address?
Defining the point at which annoying behavior becomes harassing or abusive isn't easy, but it is important, because harassment is a significant and growing problem among condo and co-op boards and community associations. Owners and co-op shareholders have been accused of harassing board members, managers, maintenance staff, vendors and other owners. And virtually every association has at least one member, if not more, who habitually interrupts meetings with angry harangues that often have little or nothing to do with the issues at hand.
Defining the Term
Black's Law Dictionary defines harassment as "words, gestures, or actions which tend to annoy, alarm, or abuse another person." To annoy, Black's suggests, is "to disturb, irritate" or "cause discomfort," while abuse consists of "insulting, hurtful, or offensive wrongs or acts."
Building on that legal definition, condo and co-op boards can turn to their governing documents or proprietary lease, which typically guarantee owners the right to the "quiet enjoyment" of their homes. That does not mean freedom from noise, but rather the right to live in one's apartment without being annoyed, harassed, or otherwise interfered with by others.
Harassment, in most cases, involves a series of repetitive actions over some period of time. Yet whether the incidents are repetitive or isolated, the bottom line is whether the targeted individual felt intimidated or threatened, not whether the angry individual viewed his/her actions as abusive or intimidating or intended them that way.
Put It in Writing
Boards can amend their governing documents — or, if that's impractical, the house rules — to specify that harassing or abusive behavior is not allowed. The language can be simple, as in this model clause:
"Members and other residents shall not engage in any abusive or harassing behavior, either verbal or physical, or any form of intimidation or aggression directed at other members, residents, guests, occupants, invitees, or directed at management, its agents, its employees, or vendors."
While the language leaves the terms flexible, it is at least a place to start and a basis for taking action against homeowners who cross the line. While house rules haven't the same presumption of validity as bylaws and amendments, the courts would probably uphold a reasonable and unambiguous rule. Having a rule is better than having nothing at all.
The first step when dealing with a harassing situation is to write the offending individual a letter — or have the board's attorney write a letter — describing the behavior, noting that it violates your covenants, proprietary lease or bylaws, and stating that the individual will be subject to fines or other specified sanctions and possibly legal action if the behavior doesn't stop.
The letter should not simply tell owners they are being bad, however; it should also suggest an alternative means of dealing with the underlying problem.
Harassing situations almost always develop because residents become frustrated about something – perhaps a problem hasn't been solved or has not been solved as quickly or as happily as the resident had wished, or the board or the manager has not responded to or taken seriously his/her concern.
If you are dealing with someone who just got carried away by the emotion of the moment, a letter threatening sanctions and suggesting another way to deal with the problem is usually all that is required.
Sometimes a letter isn't enough, however. There are people who are simply bullies by nature. Sending people like this a "you'd better cut this out" letter won't alter their behavior. Imposing sanctions even may not help, and could actually make matters worse.
The next step is to go to court and seek a civil restraining order. A board member on the receiving end of abusive telephone calls or who is regularly assaulted verbally in public by an angry owner might seek an order prohibiting this resident from sending him/her e-mails and/or to remain a specified distance away.
In other situations, a board might seek an order barring disruptive residents from speaking at meetings or prohibiting them from attending meetings entirely.
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