Courts do not issue restraining orders lightly; in most cases, harassment must be part of a pattern rather than isolated incidents, and the targeted individual(s) must feel threatened. If you are dealing with actual physical threats — if a resident raises a fist, pulls a gun or says "I'm going to kill you" — call the police immediately. Even if you don't think the threats are real, having the police respond is a reasonable precaution. And having a police report on file will strengthen your hand if you eventually seek a restraining order.
Many people are understandably reluctant to file a criminal charge against a neighbor, even one who is behaving badly. But even if found guilty of harassing or threatening others, these individuals won't necessarily end up serving prison terms; a court may simply order them to seek anger-management training or other psychological help. Turning the other cheek, however, is not a good alternative: You're dealing with a classic schoolyard bully, and if you do nothing to stop the behavior, it will go on.
Whose Problem Is it?
Some condo unit-owners or co-op shareholders question whether it is appropriate for harassed board members to use condo or co-op funds to have the board's attorney write letters or represent the board member(s) in civil proceedings. We think there is no question that this is an appropriate use of the funds, for two reasons:
Seeking a restraining order is not a hugely expensive undertaking. These cases are usually heard quickly and do not require extensive preparation or court time. They usually involve hundreds and not thousands of dollars in court costs and legal fees.
Resident vs. Resident
When you are dealing with a resident who is harassing another resident rather than the manager or a board member, the instinct is usually to let them work things out for themselves. But that could backfire and expose the board to serious liability if the harassment involves illegal discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, national origin, marital status, physical or mental handicap — all specifically protected categories under federal and many state fair housing laws. Boards have a legal obligation to intervene in these cases.
When dealing with resident vs. resident harassment charges, your board should first verify the complaint. Get copies of any abusive letters or e-mails, or tapes of abusive phone calls. If the behavior occurs in person, have a third party — the manager or one or more board members — witness the threatening behavior. You should then follow the steps outlined earlier for dealing with harassment against board members:
Essential Communication Skills
Obviously, it would be far better to defuse tensions before they evolve into full-blown harassment problems. Effective communications skills can help. They aren't foolproof, but they are an effective first line of defense.
Some people are naturally effective communicators; they understand how to listen to angry people and respond without infuriating them further. Communications courses can teach those skills to people who don't possess them. One of the most important things these courses teach is that while you can't control another individual's abusive behavior, you can control your response to it so that you don't make a tense situation worse.
Other basic tips for dealing with angry or frustrated individuals:
That last tip is especially useful when dealing with chronic bullies. Someone who disrupts meetings might ignore the president's order to sit down, but may respond if five other residents say likewise. The resident who shouts epithets in the parking lot will stop if other residents declare that this behavior won't be tolerated. Bullies won't stand up to a crowd.
As regards the relatively new phenomenon of cyberbullying, the advice doesn't change. It is just another form of harassment, and depending on the content could give rise to claims for libel and defamation.
Bullies thrive because people don't want to get involved. But condo and co-op dwellers have more than the average power to control their destinies. For them, the question becomes: What kind of community do we want to live in?
Janet Oulousian Aronson is a partner in the Massachusetts firm Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, and has lectured on community-association law to groups including the Boston chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management, the New England chapter of the Community Associations Institute, and the CAI's National Law Seminar. This checklist is adapted from her article "Cut That Out! Home Owner Associations Must Define Harassment and Find Ways to Prevent it" at her law firm's website.
For articles going back to 2002, join our Archive >>
Co-op and condo board business broken down into bite-sized bits - 2 stories each week. Read now on all digital devices.
A free digital resource for co-op/condo board directors. Published twice a month. Read now on all digital devices.