Q: The board president at our Midtown East condo building has installed cameras above the doorman’s desk and in the passenger and commercial elevators. We suspect the cameras monitor conversations, as well as everyone’s comings and goings. But only the board president and our superintendent can see the video footage. The doormen go outside so they can talk to one another without fear that their conversations are being recorded. Can a condo board spy on unit-owners and staff like this?
A: Cameras that capture images in common areas of residential buildings for security purposes are lawful — though recording conversations, as you describe, is not, replies the Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times. Your first step should be to determine if the cameras were legitimately installed.
The board president cannot do this unilaterally. A condo board can take actions only if they're authorized in the condominium declaration and bylaws. You can check the building’s offering plan to find these documents and see if the board president was authorized to purchase, install and monitor the cameras, says Andrew Lieb, a real estate lawyer.
“A house rule that is unauthorized by these foundational documents is unenforceable,” Lieb says, “and if the cameras were only installed by such a rule, without more, you have a great case to get them taken down.”
The motive behind the camera installation is important, he adds. If the board president acted with a bad motive — say, to spy on a rival — you can sue for breach of fiduciary duty because the president is a fiduciary to the condominium and must act in good faith, with fair dealing to all unit-owners. If the cameras were installed in accordance with the bylaws and in good faith for the protection of the building and unit-owners, it will be difficult to contest.
When it comes to recording conversations, as you suspect is happening, state law comes into the picture. New York is a one-party consent state, meaning that one party must consent to the recording of a conversation. Violation of this law is a Class E felony.
You and your fellow unit-owners should read the governing documents to determine how to call a meeting and get some answers, says Adam Leitman Bailey, head of his eponymous law firm. “I recommend that the owner seek to call a special meeting using legal counsel," he says, "and if not an option, without counsel, and try to undo this arrangement on privacy and safety concerns."
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